To the uninitiated, 24 year-old Olubowale Akintimehin of Washington, D.C. is either a complete unknown or the guy who showed up this summer with Lady GaGa on a song and wrote an entire mixtape based on Seinfeld. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the “ambassador of hip-hop from the capital,” Wale (pronounced wah-lay).
After five mixtapes dating back to 2005, Attention Deficit, released last week, is Wale’s much anticipated, thrice-delayed major-label debut. The last couple years saw incredible buzz for Wale; he graced the cover of URB, was named to XXL’s Freshmen Class of ‘09 list along with B.o.B, Kid Cudi, Asher Roth, and others, played the MTV Video Music Awards, toured with Jay-Z, and made appearances on ESPN’s First Take and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and Chicago are widely considered the only cities that matter in the hip-hop world but Wale is making the case for the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia), and the go-go sound in particular, to be included in the discussion.
Attention Deficit succeeds mightily in waking up anyone who needs a late pass and hasn’t been paying attention to the new generation of hip-hop.
At 50 minutes, 14 tracks and zero skits, Attention Deficit was clearly designed with efficiency in mind. The production work here is unusually lush – the generous use of live instrumentation and atypical arrangements alone will set most of these tracks apart from standard hip-hop fare.
And standard hip-hop fare this is not. What are the biggest complaints against rap? Misogyny, materialism, and shallowness. For a debut, Wale bravely avoids the aforementioned pratfalls. Of course there’s plenty of braggadocio but it wouldn’t be hip-hop without some pats on the back.
But Wale is a complex character and while he revels in his ability and growing fame, he also laments the pressure to carry the torch and save hip-hop. “I’ve been called the heir apparent / Not D.C., this whole genre” he raps on “Mama Told Me.” Sure it’s an arrogant statement but the actual delivery sounds more embarrassed than proud.
“Pretty Girls,” the album’s second single, is the best example of D.C. and Baltimore’s local go-go sound. Produced by longtime partner Best Kept Secret, the track is brimming with classic hip-hop enthusiasm, loose and fun. Atlanta’s Gucci Mane shows up and puts the stamp on the party atmosphere. It’s a standout track and a great introduction to what Wale’s all about.
I mentioned earlier that Wale is a complex and introspective rapper, a mainstream rarity, and the second half of Attention Deficit highlights this very well. “Shades” with Chrisette Michelle along for the ride, is an incredibly frank discussion of prejudice within the black community and his struggle for acceptance as a legitimate African-American (his parents are first generation Nigerian immigrants).
“I never fit in with them light skins / I thought the lighter they was, the better that they life is / So I resented them / And they resented me / Cheated on light-skinned Dominique when we were 17.” When’s the last time you heard a rapper speak candidly about such a vulnerable subject with sounding didactic? There can be substance in hip-hop!
The Lady GaGa featured “Chillin” is incredibly catchy and is the most accessible track on the album. I don’t know if it’s possible not to like the song. Bun B of UGK drops a verse on “Mirrors” and Pharrell lends his touch to “Let It Loose” giving Wale the necessary big time features.
The standout track, “TV in the Radio,” produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, is an incredible blend of horns, Radiohead-esque synth, and old-school trash talking. “Fat rhymes every time, Rosanne bars” Wale spits before passing the mic to K’Naan, the pride of Somalia, who ends the debate about his legitimacy as a rapper.
Wale spends his time on the last few tracks fretting about failure, both romantic (infidelity) and professional (disposability). On “Contemplate” he waits by the phone for a call that never arrives, mulling over his uncertain popularity in the meantime. “One day everybody is applauding / The next day you is everybody’s target.”
On “Dairy” we’re treated to the same story from a female perspective, laid atop a sample from Yann Tiersen’s waltz from Amélie (no, seriously). Melodrama aside, these two songs serve a noble purpose – not since Kanye West has a mainstream rapper so effectively demonstrated that arrogance and insecurity are two sides of the same coin.
In the end, Attention Deficit is a fantastic introduction, although some of Wale’s essence gets lost in the transition from backpack superstar to the mainstream. The hunger and fire of 100 Miles & Running and The Mixtape About Nothing is to some extent missing; but to be fair, motivation would understandably be lacking after you’ve received co-signs from Jay-Z, The Roots, and 9th Wonder. However to those who haven’t given Wale a listen, this album will be a refreshing reminder that hip-hop is definitely not dead; it’s merely evolving in a youth movement. Thoroughly recommended.