Wale has been on the brink of a breakthrough for so long now that it’s neither far-fetched nor oxymoronic to refer to him as a veteran up-and-comer. Since around 2006 or so, the D.C.-based rapper with roots in the area’s local go-go scene has existed as rap’s semiofficial next best thing. He’s collaborated and toured with Mark Ronson, released a trio of high-profile mixtapes (including last year’s terrific Seinfield-themed The Mixtape About Nothing), and maintained a Twitter and blogospheric popularity impressive for someone who’s yet to release an official album.
So, Attention Deficit is both Wale’s major-label debut and his moment of truth, and on it he walks a fine line between selling out, repping his city, and gaining the approval of the post-backpacker underground. A lot of us who have been anticipating this album for an embarrassingly long time were worried about the first of these goals and became a little squeamish when we heard the album’s first two singles. “Chillin” and “World Tour” (featuring Lady GaGa and Jazmine Sullivan, respectively) are both tepid Cool & Dre productions in which Wale seems to be attempting Black Eyed Peas-style halftime-show rap. But aside from these and a forgettable Neptunes track (are rappers required by law to throw Pharrell and his tinny, tired book of beats a bone every time they release an album?), the album’s crossover bids are mercilessly few. The larger trends of Attention Deficit are Wale’s further evolution as an “issues” rapper and his continued willingness to wax free-associative over outside-the-box production.
Even as someone who loves TV on the Radio, I was skeptical when I heard Wale was working with the band’s Dave Sitek on a few tracks. It sounded too much like indie cotton candy: I thought, what, are they going to put Zooey Deschanel on the hook? But Wale was rightfully confident that Sitek’s skills could translate to hip-hop, and after Attention Deficit comes out Sitek may see his Blackblerry blowing up with requests from other rappers. Wale was apparently pleased enough with these collaborations that he opens Attention Deficit with the horn-stomping Sitek jam “Triumph,” a song that captures everything that got people excited about Wale in the first place: In dizzying, freestyle-like flow, he drops a humble nod to Kanye West (“I asked Mr. West for a little bit of help/But I realized these new niggas gotta get it ourself”), cleverly references mid-‘90s Nebraska quarterback Tommy Frazier, and uses a vintage Nintendo character to make a sexual putdown (“And she swallow everything like Kirby”).
I could listen to Wale go nuts over top-shelf weirdo beats for an entire album, and I guess satisfying that desire is the point of songs like “Mirrors” with Bun B, a delicious Premo-style slice of boom bap, “Pretty Girls” with Gucci Mane, and “Beautiful Bliss” with the on-fire next-next-best-thing J. Cole. But Wale’s mixtapes have proven that while the rapper is definitely interested in dominating hipster dance parties with songs like “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.,” he also has a conscious streak that is as important to him, if not more (Mixtape About Nothing‘s race parable “The Krammer” is as thought-provoking as an entire Cornel West tome).
Wale continues the habit of pointing a magnifying glass at uncomfortable subject matter on Attention Deficit. “Contemplate” and “Diary” take opposing sides of the male-female divide, and thoroughly squash the vacuous treatment Jay-Z gave to the same subject on Blueprint 3‘s “Venus Vs. Mars.” But Wale really lives up to his reputation for not shying away from controversy with “Shades,” a song about the racism prevalent among lighter-skinned African-Americans toward darker-skinned ones. Wale, the son of Nigerian immigrants, raps in honest, reflective bars about a prejudice most people would like to think doesn’t exist: “I never fit in with those light skins/I felt like the lighter they was, the better their life is.” The one instance where Wale’s instinct for social examination goes astray is the uncharming Ronson-produced “90210,” which, in its caricature of the coke-nosed celebrity wannabe, flips Chuck D’s famous “hip-hop is CNN for black people” to “the CW for black people” and must have been researched entirely on TMZ.com.
With his Lil Wayne-worthy punchlines, Kanye levels of heart, and Hova-approaching fluidities of flow, Wale’s not being overly presumptuous when he calls himself the “past, present, and future of hip-hop.” But that doesn’t mean he yet matches any of these dudes for originality or personality. In its ambitious attempts to revive conscious rap and push the envelope sonically, Attention Deficit may be one of the best rap releases of the year even while it lacks the focus of a central persona. As an artist, Wale is all over the place, and for the most part that’s a good thing. If he’s going to go the distance as a rapper, though, and it’s clear at this point that that’s his objective, he’s going to have become less of a prism for sports references, celebrity jokes, and highbrow social arguments and more of a force in his own right.