MR. NICE GUY
Mack Wilds got his start as a good (stickup) kid in The Wire's mad city. Now he’s looking for his next come up: R&B heavyweight. Can he steal your heart?
STORY: Clover Hope | PHOTO: Sarah McColgan
Up the stairs, past the main pole and the women with strings for clothes, Mack Wilds is in the VIP section of Club Lust doing his job—reintroducing himself. He’s wearing a grey sweatshirt with black-and-white LeBrons on his feet. A black bandana hangs from his back denim pocket. He greets me with a grin (he’s a smiler) and a tight hug, as if we’re cousins at a family function and not a Sunset Park, Brooklyn strip club during graveyard shift hours. As DJ Self plays a soundtrack of sinful staples, from Juvenile’s “Slow Motion” to Chris Brown’s “Loyal,” Wilds works the room, posing for pics and exchanging daps with men in camo and women in leggings. They can’t quite put a name to the face, but they recognize him as that kid from The Wire.
A dancer in a black thong, a Pam-from-Total hairdo and an ultra-cropped white tee that hugs her boobs saunters up next to his bodyguard, Brick. Mack is seated. She looks at him quizzically, and then leans in, her ass inches from the Cîroc bottles on the table.
“You rap? Or sing?” she asks, with a little hood in her voice.
“Sing...” says Wilds.
“What song do I know?”
“Oh!” She does a little shimmy. “Heh-nuh-see! Heh-nuh-see!”
Wilds nods and ignores the slight. On HBO’s The Wire, Tristan Wilds, as Michael Lee, looked like the kid worth saving from Baltimore’s criminal corners. Mack Wilds, the 25-year-old R&B singer, still looks like a boy in the face, though he no longer needs saving. He’s on to his second act—convincing us that he’s not just a singing actor. And he’s aiming for a career track that might place him in the company of actors who’ve made that improbable (and profitable) leap into music—Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez, instead of, say, Eddie Murphy. So for the past year, Wilds has been the Waldo of New York events. Club Lust is one of his many appearances.
It’s hard not to dismiss his recording pursuits as mere recreation. Drifting into music from Hollywood (his respectable post-HBO roles include the George Lucas-produced Red Tails and The Secret Life of Bees) generally attracts skepticism. But Wilds surpassed low expectations with his debut project, 2013’s New York: A Love Story. A stream of soft, moody ballads and club tracks seasoned with East Coast rap beats (from legends Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Salaam Remi), the album earned him a 2014 Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album, which surprised everyone, including him. “I’m still in awe by this whole process,” he says. “It’s nuts.”
The mainstream validation upped Wilds’ stock, and his summer schedule now includes an opening spot on the Under the Influence of Music tour with Young Jeezy, Wiz Khalifa and Tyga. “People don’t even realize there’s an album out—and that it’s actually kinda good,” says Wilds, only mildly frustrated. “It’s that initial feeling, like, Why would he do this? I can’t be mad at that. Like with Justin Timberlake. When he jumps into acting, he’ll have actors like, ‘Oh my god, what is he doing?’ But he’s good. And he’s not just good. He’s brilliant and he’s funny and has charisma.”
Mack knows that JT’s evolution from Mickey Mouse Club to boy band star to pop icon-slash-reputable actor is incomparable. But he’s quick to stress his own work ethic. His peers are easily classified as either vocalists posturing as hardcore rappers (Ty Dolla $ign, his covermate August Alsina), ethereal penmen (Miguel, Frank Ocean) or Chris Brown. Mack is the ’round-the-way guy. He’s the gentleman in the strip club. He’ll toss singles and entertain the dancers at Lust, per expectations. But when a particularly aggressive stripper shoves a set of dimpled cheeks in my face, he extends a hand, Prince Charming-style, to rescue me. He doesn’t abuse the bottle service—he only drinks “for celebratory occasions.”
Actors are masters at deflecting and playing faux humble, but Wilds is the instantly likable type whose unpretentiousness seems genuine. It’s hard to imagine him as an undercover jerk, and those who’ve worked with him will corroborate that the modesty is real. “He’s not putting on for the crowd, trying to portray something he’s not,” says Ne-Yo, who co-wrote Wilds’ single, “Own It.” “I like the raw, realness of Mack’s album. It’s New York to its core, which is what he exudes, yet not in a typical way. The music is comfortable in its own skin.”
In actuality, being a double threat is a minor handicap (Wilds auditions for film roles regularly “to keep it sharp,” he says). But perception is everything. “I’m a realist in a sense,” he says. “Like, where am I gonna survive in a world of 2 Chainz and Drake? Frank, Miguel and all of these guys. I remember coming across them in my travels and being like, ‘Yo, bro, I got some music coming up.’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, cool, how’s that movie going?’”
Two days after Lust, Wilds hosts a Saturday afternoon block party for the Fashion Institute of Technology. The gig involves a short performance of “Own It” and “Henny,” plus emcee duties for the school’s amateur fashion show. The sparse crowd consisted of no more than 50 students and passersby in the street. “Dixon is performing on stage right now. He sings,” says a blonde girl over the phone.
Afterward, Wilds hops in a SUV with his two road managers and Brick. He cues the original version of his album cut, “The Sober Up”—a dreamy morning-after tune written by James Poyser—and taps his customized, paint-splashed Timberlands to the beat. Love Story is primarily self-written and was released through Salaam Remi’s Sony Music imprint, Louder Than Life. The album closes with “Duck Sauce,” an ode to hood Chinese spots. So naturally, we’re headed to Mack’s favorite Chinese restaurant, Wo Hop, in Chinatown, a place where collages of police badges and photos of patrons litter the walls. “It’s like walking into an old Kung Fu flick,” he says.
Wilds is from Staten Island, a borough that means little to most New Yorkers. From first through 12th grade, he went to a predominantly white school outside of his Stapleton Projects zone—Michael J. Petrides School—where he hung in creative circles. Hearing his older brother and high school friends brag about acting auditions made him anxious to follow suit. His mom, a beautician turned stockbroker (“It was something she fell into,” says Wilds), gave him money for a MetroCard and professional headshots to get started. “She always made sure we were super independent,” says Wilds. “She’d say, ‘If you make it, it’s your fault. If you fail, it’s your fault.’”
His first commercial, a spot for a toy car, involved running around a supermarket. Wilds got The Wire at 17, after a role in the Spike Lee production Miracle’s Boys, a TV series on the little known network, The N. The show co-starred Julito McCullum, another kid from The Wire. No one remembers it. Everyone remembers The Wire’s 2008 series finale, in which Wilds’ good-kid character shoots a shop owner in the knee and becomes the new stickup man. “The Wire was eerily comfortable because it was so similar to my neighborhood,” says Wilds. “I was in the streets one day with Snoop [played by Felicia Pearson] and the producers were like, ‘You can’t do that. These kids will kill you, thinking that they’re killing Michael.”
If not for The Wire, an indisputable top-five greatest show ever, a shot at music would be less probable. Salaam Remi was a fan of Tristan, the actor, before meeting him at the BMI Awards and signing him in 2012. “People liked his character’s integrity on The Wire, which wasn’t too far from the integrity that he has himself,” says Remi.
Wilds’ five-year run as the clean-cut Dixon in the rebooted 90210—a role he chose over playing Lil Cease in Notorious—made him even more of a suburban household name. In between shooting, Wilds sat in on studio sessions with Remi, playing apprentice. Every time he sang, people were surprised. “He’s not doing the play-play Auto-Tune singing. He can do a lot with his voice,” says Remi. “When we were recording ‘Don’t Turn Me Down,’ I left the room and came back in and Mack nailed the falsetto. [Producer] Rico Love looked at me, like, ‘Wow, I ain’t think he could do this, but this is special.’ Most people hear it and they’re like, ‘Who’s the girl on the record?’ And then they realize, it’s actually Mack.”
In his music, Wilds is the sensitive humble-bragger with a slight edge who’ll say things like, “You’re the only one I let see this side of me”; the guy who might not realize when a girl is really feeling him. Standing on the sidewalk outside Wo Hop, Coke can in hand, Wilds carries cartons of leftover fried rice and wings. Besides socializing professionally, he dates (not Sevyn Streeter, as rumored), and he’s open to a ’round-the-way chick. Maybe someone like Yaya, his childhood crush, the girl who all the boys wanted. Even then, Mack was modest about his charms. “I remember thinking, she doesn’t like me, and tried to leave it at that,” he says. That changed one day while they were playing Skully—a game with bottle caps—in the street. “We were all joking around, kicking each other’s bottle caps,” he says. “Next thing you know, while everyone else is play fighting, she grabs me up, throws me up against the wall and kisses me. That was my first love.”