Washington, DC’s Wale was crowned a champion without even winning a fight. Sure, he’s survived battles, and has trained well, and definitely is in condition to be a top notch contributor in the hip hop community. However, the intense pressure surrounding his debut album Attention: Deficit didn’t create a diamond out of coal, instead, it just crushed coal into, well, more coal, with a diamond hopeful to surface. This album is a success in that by its release, Wale ascends to the throne as the official representative of the nation’s capital in hip hop. This album doesn’t put DC on par with New York, or LA, or anywhere else for that matter. Instead, by being, well, terribly generic and expected in many places, has Wale being yet another voice in a filling fray of fresh new hip hop talent for the millennium and beyond. But at least the “DMV” is at the table, as this album eases open a door that had been slammed shut repeatedly on this city for the last 30 years.
Wale’s debut album could have easily been a “best of” mixtape. Five legendary creations, with guest features from everyone from Lil Wayne and Bun B to UCB’s local go go flavor, and productions that ranged from Justice’s electro winner of 2007 “D.A.N.C.E.” to an entire collection of mixes done by mid 90s legend 9th Wonder. Moving Wale’s career ahead to album and major recording deal with Roc Nation status may have been a necessary move, but in removing the creative freedoms of the mixtape, Wale becomes another in a line of lyrically talented and slightly reflective emcees, instead of a wunderkind that can infuse a track with levity and verbal superiority.
Attention: Deficit clocks in at 54 minutes and 14 tracks that leave a listener a fan of Wale, his status as an extreme aficionado and lover of all things athletic, self-aggrandizing name dropping and constant proclamations of his own superstardom for sure, but not really quite aware of his direction or style as an artist. There’s the underwhelming radio lead single “Chillin,” a track that dominates the album as, well, upon listening to the other 13 tracks by comparison, it’s quite clear that a record company executive somewhere really felt quite positive that a track from Cool and Dre with a lush Steam sample from “(Na Na Hey Hey) Kiss Him Goodbye” and Lady Gaga on the hook would be the best way to introduce Wale to a mainstream audience on a single. The budget for this track in itself obviously trumps three or four other tracks combined, and “Chillin’,” instead of standing out on the album for being a hit single, stands out for being a cluster, a prepackaged attempt to re-image Wale that fails, and leaves Wale as an artist with a giant single of renown that in no way defines who and what he truly is as an artist.
This album’s success comes when Wale is himself. He’s an insecure suburbanite with the ability to create insightful and often witty takes on the universe. He’s quiet, measured and thoughtful, and the winners on his debut display that wonderfully. Mark Ronson, with whom Wale has collaborated with successfully so many times, gives Wale a boost toward mainstream credibility with “90210,” a tale of Wale’s take on the hollow existence of celebrity groupies, while material that has been tread upon before a million times, the quiet and hollow synths of Ronson’s production allow Wale’s wisdom to really stand out and take grasp of the soul. Other winners include “Mama Told Me,” “Diary” with the wondrous voice of ex-Floetry member Marsha Ambrosious, as well as the wonderful tale of colorstruck, dark brown skin angst, “Shades.” In both of these, namely “Shades” and “Mama Told Me,” which looses the genius of Craig B. and Tone P. (DC’s Best Kept Secret) and their go-go based productions on the world, the downtempo and less aggressive productions once again allow Wale to really shine as a master storyteller and wordsmith, crafting fully fleshed out and completely realized stories of his life, a suburban griot with a thought provoking story to tell.
But the album rests at a halt on the radio singles. Wale’s ability to create potent adlibs is his weakest calling card on a mainstream stage. When compared to other unsigned artists, Wale is a savant. When compared to the artists he has as guests on his own debut, he’s merely a cosigned little brother. On “Mirrors,” featuring Wale’s mentor Bun B, he’s clearly outclassed, as Wale, who worked his tail off on this album, throws 16 bars with beads of sweat on his forehead, while Bun B drops science as though he were taking out the garbage. Killer rhymes, dropped perfectly, another day at the office. And the same goes for every other guest appearance here as well. Wale seems to legitimately enjoy the fact that on his debut he got the chance to record with so many artists that inspired him and that he sees as legends. But where say, someone like Kanye West hopped on tracks with name brand artists and held his own and created himself as a hip hop staple, Wale gets stapled to the surface as creepin’ on a come up, but maybe a few albums away.
“World Tour” with Jasmine Sullivan, the current single, suffers by taking the hook from A Tribe Called Quest’s iconic “Award Tour,” and blending it with another laconic, expected Cool and Dre track that holds back pretty much anything the Philly diva and the DC rhyme spitter can do on it to elevate the single. “Let it Loose” a clear Neptunes banger with Pharrell on this hook is smartly executed, but nothing about Wale, or his multitudes of witty adlibs and quick rhyming can overcome the magic of Pharrell on the track.
The album’s true winner, “Pretty Girls,” featuring the ubiquitous Gucci Mane and vocalist Weensey from DC go go legends the Backyard Band is a success because of pretty much everything but Wale. Sure he’s exemplary as usual, but the song’s hook, “Pretty girls, I ask em do they smoke?/Ask em what do they know?/Ask em can we go?/ Pretty girls/Sunshine in the air/perfume everywhere/Girls are everywhere” is enormously fantastic, the type of hook that evokes a mood, a time, a place and feeling that we all know, and we all love. When Gucci jumps on the track, he feels completely at home with the subject matter, sadly moreso than Wale who’s been cultivating this track as his own for the last three years. And the handclap break? “Ugly girls be quiet (quiet), pretty girls clap like this/Ugly girls be quiet (quiet), pretty girls clap(clap) like this”? Well, that’s just fun. But again, as with most of this album, it puts Wale in the background, and the magic of music in the forefront.
In final, Attention: Deficit in what is certain to be a long career for Wale, will be a bittersweet memory. Hamstrung and nerve wracked by the constraints and pressures of the music industry, he did not succeed. However, everything will succeed because of this album. DC, go go, DMV hip hop, Ben’s Chili Bowl, the whole gamut of what DC has to offer is now in play. The key now for Wale is to hopefully take the things that do succeed on an album bearing his name, and attempt to engender enough positive support to eventually assert the creative freedom he truly needs to be the artist he wants desperately to be.