Wale’s grind in the D.C. mixtape circuit deserves some recognition. When he graced our 2009 “Freshman” cover, Mr. Folarin built a buzz with critically acclaimed releases like 100 Miles & Runnin’ and The Mixtape About Nothing. His success with MMG would come after, but Wale remains loyal to the fans who kept their ear to the streets.

Just days before his newest mixtape, Folarin, dropped on Christmas Eve (that's today—Merry Christmas!), we spoke with Wale about the significance of each of his mixtapes. So far, the leaked tracks off Folarin“Freedom of Speech”, “Back 2 Ballin’” and “The Blessings”—are reminiscent of an old Wale that fans have been clamoring for. The 21-track tape features Travis Porter, Hit-Boy, Trinidad James, Scarface and more, and he says it includes elements from all his previous tapes combined.

Read on to learn the stories and inspirations behind Wale’s mixtapes leading up to Folarin.As told to Eric Diep (@E_Diep)

Paint a Picture (2005)


Wale: "For Paint a Picture, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just that dude that everybody knew that was popular in D.C. and could rap. I was a kid just trying to figure it out. Me and my friends rapping in some damn closet in a low income apartment. That’s pretty much what that was. I was working with Kenny Burns a lot. He was showing me the ropes in the industry. I was really, really green at that point.

"Paint a Picture wasn’t really go-go-influenced. The only song that was go-go was “Dig Dug.” When you talk about go-go influenced, [it's] Mixtape About Nothing—the first one. When I first got up with Bee Kay X, they used a lot of congas and real drums in their music. That was maybe three tapes later.

"A lot of this shit never existed at that time. We were one of the first people to do the free mixtape thing hard like that. But none of this shit really existed. There was MySpace. I never really knew how hot I was because really all we had was the streets. Me and my man we were doing it and seeing how them mixtapes were doing. At that time, I was barely old enough to get in the club. I was opening for Young Dro, D4L, Shawty Lo, Fat Joe. I vividly remember these shows at that time. It was the only way to gauge how hot I was. There was no consensus via social network.

"In retrospect, looking at it now, that was when I must have been on Mark Ronson’s radar and all that. At that time, you can’t really tell. There’s no Rap Radar or online source that says, “Yo, this kid is popping.”"

Hate Is the New Love (2006)


Wale: "That’s the zone I am in right now. At that point, I felt that I had to prove stuff to the city, just because I grew up on Jay-Z, Black Thought and The Roots and all that. But I was striking gold with all my ratchet records. So it’s often a debate back home—who’s the nicest? You know what I am saying? I was like, 'Yo, I am coming. I am here. All you older people, I want to be heard.' A dude asked me if I was a real rapper or if I was on some go-go shit and I just branched out.

"You could even hear me talk about proving myself on 'Lucky Me' and all those things. I was kind of trying to vent. I’m not by any means a street nigga. I’m not like no drug dealer. Niggas was trying to find any reason to tell me why I didn’t belong as an ambassador of D.C. hip-hop. I was defensive. I was on my shit. 'Niggas gonna know that I’ll be around.'"

100 Miles and Runnin’ (2007)


Wale: "Nick Catchdubs did my first write-up with The Fader. I was getting a lot of advice from my manager at the time, Dan Weisman. I was really meeting people outside of the hood, outside of ghetto studios and shit like that. I was really starting to see the world with Mark and all of those things. I was being exposed to different music. It was an interesting time for me and that’s when a lot of things changed and my early industry buzz was starting up. 'W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.' was when I started falling in love with other genres and being open to experiment.

"On 100 Miles and Runnin’, I was just rapping on what felt right. I heard that [Justice] 'D.A.N.C.E.' joint; I was like, I just like the beat and I could flip this shit and I could go crazy on it. I didn’t know that shit had a cult following. I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I think that’s one of the things that I really appreciate the most about my music. I don’t force it; I just go with whatever sounds good. I’ve held that to this day. I’d get on a record with Travis Porter or 2 Chainz. They come from a different whole music sound, but it feels right. I just rap with what feels right. I think those are some of the most successful MCs, who just know the art of hip-hop so well that they could just switch it up."

The Mixtape About Nothing (2008)


Wale: "If I made The Mixtape About Nothing without any of the drops, I don’t think people would listen to it the same. In hindsight, it’s 20/20. You know what I am saying? I sequenced ideas and songs the same way I did on there, but obviously you can’t clear it. [Laughs] You can’t do that on an album, it goes over people’s heads. In hindsight, a lot of that shit I tried to get people closer to my world. Unfortunately, I can’t do it anytime.

“'The Vacation From Ourselves' is probably my favorite off that tape. Just the zone I was in. I remember being in the studio with all my friends. Everybody was just smoking. 'Did that sound good?' Everybody was just looking at me and smiling, high, not even paying attention, and I was like, 'Keep going.'

"Mixtape About Nothing [helped launch my career.] I think myself, my manager, and everybody can attest to that. Mixtape About Nothing helped jumpstart it for real. I remember Jimmy Iovine—I ain’t gonna say the artist name to whom he did this to. But Jimmy Iovine—this is when I first signed with him—and he put this on top of another artist’s album. He was like, 'Yo, top this. I don’t think anybody could top this.'

"It’s crazy because that’s one of the first times when I let my creativity just do what it did. A lot of people are creative and they shut that shit down because other people shut it down. I just kept going. I thought of that shit and did it all the way through. It’s a sad thing because I wasn’t allowed to do that with my album on Interscope."

Back to the Feature (2009)


Wale: "It was different, me and 9th [Wonder]. It was kind of a range of ideas that I had. 9th didn’t really know who I was like that, but I promised him that I would still complete the tape. I feel like that’s one of my most underrated projects. I don’t think anybody understood what I was trying to do, but I am proud of that joint. My favorite one off there is probably the K’naan joint ['Um Ricka'].

"I was just recording so much, but I still wanted to work with a lot of people that I wanted to work with, not the label-suggested people. That was kind of a treat for myself and for hip-hop. The Skyzoos, the Joe Buddens, Royce da 5’9—that’s where I was at.

"It’s just rap. Everybody just rapped. I be telling some of my artist friends, 'Everything doesn’t have to be this overly thought-out, super-crazy plan. Just rap.' Me personally, I am a fan of hip-hop. I remember being in D.C., when I was younger, listening to Hot 97 freestyles and tapes and all that. I was just getting fed."

More About Nothing (2010)


Wale: "I wanted to do a sequel regardless. One of my best friends always be like, 'You know what? Mixtape About Nothing got you your record deal. More About Nothing got you your second record deal.' [Laughs] More About Nothing was when I got dropped from Interscope. I was kind of on the ropes when I was writing it. I just wanted to get back to making something my way. I made that joint my way.

"Man, it’s crazy though. It was a learning experience [working with Fat Trel], spending all that money and not getting no paperwork. [He's] waking up in the morning and saying that he didn’t want to sign. You know what I am saying? I be learning from that too. Now it’s more just working with people from back home without even trying to get into no paperwork situation with everybody—just helping them.

"Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing is equal to me. That’s why I feel like to do a third one I really got to be in a space where I have all my resources. I told you, people be asking for a tape. Let me leave that one right there." [Laughs]

The Eleven One Eleven Theory (2011)


Wale: "Eleven One Eleven Theory was my first mixtape on Maybach. That was just songs. That was just me feeding the fans. I am in love with a lot of songs on there. I tried to showcase what I can do lyrically every time. I took that shit seriously. I want to be regarded as one of the best rappers. If anything else, niggas can say whatever about my attitude and how I dress, my beanies, the girls I date—whatever the fuck they want. When it all boils down, I want to be known as one of the best rappers.

[“'Varsity Blues'] is a story that never really gets told like that. That’s why I say I'm doing it my way. A lot of labels wouldn’t let you put a song like that out. They say, 'Nobody understands that.' But I said, 'You know, that story has to be heard.' I wish I could have made that song commercial on an actual album. The word would have got out more. I still got issues with the NCAA, but that’s another story."

Folarin (2012)


Wale: "I feel like I reached for the sky on this new one. I feel like I transformed to another person. It’s the first time I had this much access to a studio in my life. It’s dangerous. I’m sitting with like 60 songs right now. Another thing I should mention is that this tape was not created as album throwaways. These were designed for mixtapes, so everything is handcrafted to be heard for listeners who download mixtapes.

"I had a conversation with someone very important to me who was like, 'You just got to do the things that make you.' In a nutshell, that’s what Folarin is, and if you like 'Dig Dug,' if you like that ratchet Wale. I do it for the people from home. I do it for the people who were at SOBs two, three hours in line to hear me do 'Breakdown' and 'Dig Dug.' You know what I am saying? I do it for the people that can appreciate a song like '600 Benz.' Then they go appreciate something like the whole Back to the Feature tape."

"It’s deeper than that. A lot of hip-hop fans think like, 'Yo, you don’t have a soul beat and you are not beating on your chest with 32 bars—you ain’t hip-hop.' I feel like I am gonna show them what hip-hop is. I am gonna show you what lyricism is on this."