- Vincent Thomas
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Wale is an actual sports head. That's not necessarily because he played (although he did, finishing his career as a running back at Robert Morris University). Nah, he's a sports head because he shows up on ESPN talking about his hometown Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin and debates Skip Bayless about LeBron James. He doesn't just rap that he scrambles like Randall Cunningham, he says he scrambles like Randall "getting chased by John Randall."
His new album, "Ambition," dropped Tuesday (iTunes | Amazon). It's sure to have a slew of sports namedrops, insider jargon and obscure references. That's what he does, some might say, best. But it was "The Eleven One Eleven Theory," his pre-"Ambition" mixtape, that included his most ambitious rap-sports marriage yet, in the form of "Varsity Blues," the most socially conscious sports-related rap song in recent memory.
We got Wale on the phone to talk about it all -- LeBron included.
The Life: Somebody hipped me to your mixtape ("Eleven One Eleven Theory") not too long ago and I was impressed with "Varsity Blues," in particular. I mean, anyone familiar with your music knows you're a sports head -- like, a serious one. I've seen you pop up on ESPN to talk sports before. You drop sports analogies in your rhymes all the time. But "Varsity Blues" was different. A lot of rappers talk about sports, but few critique it, you know, socially. Give me the genesis of that cut.
Wale: Well, for one, I played sports for about 12-something years. I come from an environment where, for a lot of dudes I grew up with, sports was their hustle. Not drugs, but sports. So it's an important subject to me. I'm actually surprised ESPN is just now picking up on "Varsity Blues." But it was really my first attempt to speak on something I believe in and something I'm knowledgeable about. A lot of people that try to be conscious about a certain subject actually don't even know what they're talking about. I came from that world in a lot of ways.
The Life: You touched on specific examples with some insight. And you had dubbed-in audio of Bryant Gumble's censure of the NCAA's greed and some news audio about the Reggie Bush scandal and the incident with Brandon Davies getting suspended from BYU for having (premarital) sex. You seem to look at all those cases as examples of injustice.
Wale: I don't want to curse, so I'll just say that I think they're messed-up situations. I mean, come on. These guys make these schools a lot of money, man. A lot of money. To just give them tuition or whatever is crazy. These are multimillion dollar corporations, basically. They're using [the players] highlights to advertise the program and sell their jerseys and all that. Who's No. 15 for the Gators? Everybody bought that [Tim] Tebow jersey for Tebow. Did he see a cut of that? You know how much money, figuratively, a No. 1 recruit brings along with him? But some of these dudes are broke on campus. My cousin played D-1 basketball -- he was broke. He ain't have no money. They don't have the opportunity to work because the sport is their job, but the athletes don't see any of the millions. I played football at Robert Morris. It was grueling. The games, the practice, the film sessions. See, that's why it's important to me. I know the hustle. I was recruited by a few D-1 programs. I know what it's like. The players are getting hustled.
The Life: You know, just recently, three starters from LSU were suspended for allegedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana. One of the kids (Tyrann Mathieu) was a budding Heisman candidate. You played in college. You know about all the vices. How difficult is it to stay out of trouble as a college athlete?
Wale: Some trouble is avoidable, but not all of it. Kids are gonna make mistakes. A lot of us come from low incomes, we ain't really seen much. But you still have to be smart. Some trouble is unforeseen, but some is manageable.
The Life: I'm sure you move in circles with pro and college athletes. I'm sure many of them listen to your music. Have you ever had any conversations about "Varsity Blues"?
Wale: Well, I won't put anybody's name out there, like that. But yeah, I've definitely talked to some guys about it. I just get a lot of thanks. I've talked to athletes going through NCAA problems or have gone through problems with the schools or the law and they just thank me. It's always great to know people are listening. And you know, the players, they have to be politically correct and watch what they say. So I just look at it like I can be their mouthpiece.
The Life: You know, switching gears a bit … you have a song on the mixtape, "Pick Six." That's obviously a sports metaphor, but I couldn't quite determine exactly what it means. Explain it to me.
Wale: It's just a vibe, you know. Like nothing but green in the air. Money's in your future. It's all good from here, you know? When someone gets an interception and you see the field open up, the whole stadium knows it's gonna be a pick-six. It's like, there's just one person to beat and it's all good.
The Life: Right. Yeah, that's fly. How'd that come about?
Wale: Just in the studio, man. You know, I was in a real good groove that day and it just flowed.
The Life: You know, music inspires everybody. Athletes, painters, filmmakers, writers -- everybody. But I like to ask musicians -- rappers in particular -- if athletes inspire them. Do you ever think about particular athletes when you're in the studio recording?
Wale: I think about what LeBron goes through, a lot. I just think he's one of the greatest athletes we're ever going to see in our lifetimes and people still give him a hard time. They give him a hard time for things that may or may not even be in his control. He doesn't get enough compliments for the stuff he does do. I mean, I just feel like the praise doesn't balance out the negativity. When he has a low moment that everybody in every profession from the beginning of time is gonna go through, people jump on him. He might do something charitable, but it's talked about 1/8 of the time that they talk about a clutch free throw he missed.
The Life: But you understand why, though, right? I mean, you don't expect for us in the media or the fans to care about his charity work as much as we do about how he plays in the playoffs, do you?
Wale: It depends on what's most important to you, though. His charitable work means more to me.
The Life: What did you think about his Finals meltdown … well, let's call them "moments." What did you think about his Finals moments this past year?
Wale: Come on, man. We're talking about a guy that almost went undefeated in high school. He didn't do March Madness. He was thrown to the wolves. He's going to have ups and downs. The dude is 26 years old. Come on. A lot of us have f----- up sometimes and wish someone could've advocated for us. Sometimes it feels like it's you against the world, and I identify with him on that.
The Life: The NBA lockout. Where do you stand on that?
Wale: I just think it's really unfortunate for the sport. There's a major shift happening. The NBA is thriving. There's so much talent that was missing before and now it's back and the league is back on track. But with this lockout, it's stopping momentum and it's just a big buzzkill.
The Life: "Varsity Blues" really highlights just how often athletes can get caught up in situations, which is concerning. Ultimately, though, is there a need for personal responsibility?
Wale: Yeah. These are the guys children are supposed to look up to. I never want to put another black man down, but we do need to do better. I gotta do better, too, though. We all do. We're in the light, they can see us -- the kids. So we gotta do better.
Vincent Thomas is a SLAM magazine columnist and a frequent contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @vincecathomas on Twitter.
As his new album, "Ambition," hits stores Tuesday, rapper Wale discusses how he works sports into his lyrics, tackles NCAA greed and sticks up for LeBron James.