“Hello mainstream / I’m a walking dollar bill / ‘Aint a damn thing changing.”
— Wale, “5 Minutes”
It almost seemed like this day would never come: after a series of five increasingly hyped mixtapes, Washington D.C. rapper Wale has finally unleashed his oft-delayed debut LP, Attention Deficit. In many ways, his career arc thus far speaks volumes about the brave new world of music distribution, where publicity is paramount and physical product is worthless. During the last four years, Wale was fawned over by the press, played the MTV Video Music Awards, toured with Jay-Z and collaborated with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, all without a record label, or even a proper record, for that matter. Yet, unlike with other mixtape-centric artists like the Clipse, Wale’s decision to self-release wasn’t borne out of necessity so much as strategy. Though labels courted him from the start, the man born Olubowale Victor Folarin took his time gestating in the underground, growing both his reputation and craft and waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
As it turns out, such an approach can cut both ways. Wale’s 2008 mixtape-as-concept-album The Mixtape About Nothing, outshone most of the full-length hip-hop records released that year. The mixtape that followed, Back to the Feature was also excellent, if not quite as groundbreaking as its predecessor. As such, expectations for Attention Deficit are astronomically, perhaps unrealistically, high. And yet, the questions on everyone’s lips are the same that seem to always greet artists making the awkward transition from underground to mainstream: Does the album deliver? And has “a damn thing” changed? As it turns out, the answer to both questions is, mostly, yes.
At 50 minutes, 14 tracks and zero skits, Attention Deficit was clearly designed with efficiency in mind. Even those who dislike the album will be forced to admit that it’s the most focused, refined and polished release to bear Wale’s name. 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. That said, if there’s one thing here that doesn’t feel like a step-up from Wale’s mixtapes it’s the man himself. On Attention Deficit, it sometimes feels like Wale is holding back as an emcee, eschewing rapid-fire rhymes and overly clever lines in a bid for accessibility. He’s lucky, then, that despite this fact, he still manages to run circles around many of his peers, as a rapper, lyricist and beat curator.
Setting rookie humility aside, Wale kicks things off with a song titled “Triumph”, wherein he reveals his intentions, explains his decision to go it alone (“I asked Mr. West for a little bit of help / Realized us new niggas got to get it ourselves”) and lays bare his fears (“The only thing I fear is Iovine’s shelf”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Interscope Records co-founder and industry bellwether Jimmy Iovine). He name checks Dizzee Rascal, Kirby Puckett, Slumdog Millionaire and Michael Vick. He poorly feigns a British accent before conceding that his Cockney could use some work. And all the while, he matches Dave Sitek’s palm-muted guitar and horn blast punctuated production with a deliberate, relaxed cadence. At just under two and a half minutes, it’s a succinct, confident opening statement; an argument, rather than a plea for relevance. In other words, it’s a timely reminder of why we started paying attention to Wale in the first place.
By the second track, Wale is comfortable enough to let his guard down, tempering his swagger with a bit of sincere gratitude. “Mama told me there’d be days like this / But I ‘aint never, ever think there’d be a day like this”, he crows over a typically anthemic Best Kept Secret track. “Mirrors”, meanwhile, finds Bun B reprising his role as a hard-edged foil to Wale’s playful persona, lending a bit of credibility to the track’s repeated claims of “realness”.
“Pretty Girls”, the album’s second single, is one of a handful songs on Attention Deficit that sounds tailor made for the radio and it’s no worse for it. Best Kept Secret pull out all the stops here, borrowing a hook from the Backyard Band’s go-go mainstay “Pretty Girls” (itself a lift from Baltimore heartbreak-soul outfit the Moments and the Whatnauts) and marrying it to a pounding boom-bap beat. The ever-prolific Gucci Mane slides in casually on the second verse (“They call me Gucci / But I’ma buy you Louis”), providing a gravelly contrast to his host. But make no mistake: it’s Wale who runs the show here. Sounding like the life of the party, he breathlessly charms without resorting to misogynistic leering, repping the District hard all the while. With less than 30 seconds left in the track, he trots out the big guns, in the form of an irresistibly tactless chorus that just begs to be sang and clapped along to: “Ugly girls be quiet, quiet / Pretty girls clap, clap like this.”
The record’s middle section does its best to keep this momentum going, with the Kanye-like, Cool & Dre produced “World Tour” (when he raps “now it’s back to the lab”, you’ll be surprised that the line that follows is “45 messages right after you land” and not “me and my momma hopped in that U-Haul van”) and the Pharrell-assisted “Let It Loose”. While the latter makes use of an icily minimal, Clipse-esque Neptunes beat, it falls flat, thanks in no small part to Pharrell’s cringe-worthy refrain of “She want you to stoke her / Stroke her / Stroke her / And have fun.”
If side one of Attention Deficit is characterized by bravado, side two is very much the opposite, exploring cracks in the veneer and the vulnerabilities that lie underneath. “90210” is pretty reductionist as far as indictments of celebrity culture go (sample lyric: “She throws up whatever she eats / She leaves the bathroom with a nosebleed / Regular girl, celebrity dreams / She is 90210”), but manages to get by on catchiness alone. “Shades”, meanwhile, fares far better. Returning to the issues of race that he mined so successfully on “The Kramer”, Wale again holds a mirror up to his own insecurities, this time exploring discrimination within the black community. “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,” he raps, addressing a topic that’s seldom acknowledged in hip-hop in a way that feels deeply personal, rather than didactic.
“Chillin'” is the token party jam on side B and for all the flack that the Lady Gaga-featuring track has caught, it’s still an indisputably catchy song, even if the 9th Wonder and Nick Catchdubs reworking from Back to the Feature stands as the definitive version. More cross-genre fusion ensues with the cheekily titled “TV in the Radio”, which pairs Wale with NPR fave K’naan over a Dave Sitek production that pits Radiohead-esque synths against a clickity-clack beat, sleigh bells and bleating horns. Somehow, it all works.
Bringing things down yet another notch, 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 meanwhile (“To be honest, I’m modest / One hater for every nigga on it / 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 Amelie (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.
Ultimately, Attention Deficit stands as a solid introduction, though in venturing to bridge the gap between backpackers and the masses, Wale has clearly lost some of what set him apart in the first place. On the classic hip-hop debut albums — Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic, hell, even The College Dropout — the lead emcees sound hungry and eager to prove themselves. Wale too used to sound like that but on Attention Deficit it doesn’t feel like he’s working to earn respect so much as to retain it. To be fair, this might say more about the current state of the industry than it does about Wale — it’s hard to sound scrappy when you’ve already graced the cover of URB — though that doesn’t make the end product any more satisfying. Sure, Attention Deficit is still a thoroughly enjoyable listen. But it probably would have sounded even better had we never heard of Wale.