Full disclosure: this is my Gut Reaction to Washington DC-area rapper Wale's debut album, Attention Deficit, but I did not come across this album recently. I've had it in my possession for quite a while. I just never bothered to listen to it until now.
Wale, born Olubowale Folarin, is a perennial blogger favorite, and his branch of the hip hop tree, which combined our chosen genre with the go-go music (a harsher avenue of disco, I understand) prevalent in his area, supplied him with inspiration for numerous mixtapes, including one entitled The Mixtape About Nothing, which was based around his love of the television show Seinfeld and garnered him national attention. (That particular project was met with such universal acclaim that he has recently dropped a sequel, More About Nothing, exclusively in Blogland.) And since he was giving all of these mixtapes away for free, I have all of those somewhere on my hard drive as well. But I've never really listened to those, either. In fact, I'm only really aware of two Wale songs as of this writing: his debut single "Chillin'", whose video hit MTV thanks to the guest appearance by Lady Gaga on the hook, and Wale's own guest performance on "Rising Up" by The Roots. And I received a lot of shit for the latter track because I panned it, as I couldn't see any spark of promise in Wale based on that song. (Then again, I felt that Rising Down, the album that collaboration appeared on, was half brilliant and half awful, which is an entirely different matter.)
So I'm going into Attention Deficit as a virtual Wale virgin. Some of you two may be wondering how, as a hip hop blogger, I managed to avoid hearing most of the man's output. It's simple, really: at any given point, there are waaaaaaaaaaay too many newer artists fighting for the attention of the audience, which forces people to pick and choose at will. I don't regret any of my choices, especially since most of the reviews of Attention Deficit were, I gather, from sources who were familiar with his earlier work. So at least my point of view will be unique.
Of course, that means that I had to research Wale thoroughly before I could write about him. Wale, who is apparently the cousin of actor Gbenga Akinnagbe (who played Chris Bartlow on The Wire), defended himself from the national attention his numerous mixtapes received by partnering up with his friend Mark Ronson, with whom he had an extensive working relationship, and his Allido Records. Through a distribution deal with Interscope Records, Wale attempted to capitalize on his popularity by dropping Attention Deficit, and although critical reviews were generally positive, he only managed to sell 28,000 copies in his first week. Those numbers look awful, until you realize that Interscope severely miscalculated Wale's audience, as they only shipped thirty thousand units anyway. So was Attention Deficit a hit or a flop? Based on the new information, it appears to be a fucking blockbuster amongst people that cared enough to grab it on opening day. But nobody else owns the album, so yeah, it was a commercial flop.
Since that disappointment, Wale has been seen randomly submitting cutting room floor tracks to various blogs, recording more mixtapes (I guess he's retreated from the major label game with his tail between his legs while he gets his shit together), and generally acting like a rapper usually does when they're struggling.
Now that I've written all of that, I don't understand exactly how that's supposed to help anybody that isn't already familiar with Wale. So I'm just going to give up on these introductory paragraphs and listen to the goddamn album already.
I guess it is a small triumph that Wale actually convinced a record label that he could make them some money, but there is nothing celebratory about this track. Emile's beat is a fucking mess, switching moods as often as your bipolar ex-girlfriend who would blow you and threaten to cut your dick off within the same breath. Wale's constant punchlines are funny and consistent, which was nice, but he just couldn't work with this crappy instrumental. This probably isn't the best of signs.
2. MAMA TOLD ME
Starts off horribly (“Mama told me there'd be days like this / But I ain't never think there'd be a day like this”? The hell? Did you not listen to your mother?), but Wale redirects the song's focus to how he refuses to conform to hip hop's ideals. So he pulls it out of his ass, thanks to some clever wordplay and two legitimately interesting verses, but Best Kept Secret's beat isn't very engaging, and that hook...man, don't even get me started on that hook. But hey, The Dap Kings supplied some of the horns, so that's um, something.
3. MIRRORS (FEAT BUN B)
Bun B is doing a fantastic job aligning himself with hip hop's next generation of artists (Drake, Termanology, Wale on here, and...well, I know there are other examples, but I'm too lazy to look them up right now). Over a guitar-shaped Mark Ronson beat, the elder statesman complements the rookie beautifully, creating an entertaining-as-hell track that deserves a lot more attention than what it actually received when Attention Deficit dropped. This shit was fucking good.
4. PRETTY GIRLS (FEAT GUCCI MANE & WEENSEY OF BACKYARD BAND)
A guest appearance from Gucci Mane? Um, yay? I remember Wale catching a lot of flack for this track when it was first announced; he insisted that, once the haters actually listened to the song, they would change their minds. Well, the day of reckoning has come, and “Pretty Girls” still would have sounded a hell of a lot better had a certain cameo been left on the cutting room floor. Strange that Wale would stoop to including one of the shittiest (and yet, one of the most inexplicably popular) rappers in recent memory on a track just to appeal to an entire region. I just can't imagine him sitting around his efficiency blasting Gucci Mane. Maybe I'm in the minority on this one. Then again, maybe the label forced the collaboration in the hope that Attention Deficit would recoup their investment. (If that's true, the tactic didn't work.) Anyway, save for the guest, this wasn't all that bad for a club track.
5. WORLD TOUR (FEAT JAZMINE SULLIVAN)
I first heard Wale perform this song when he was the resident “house musician” at last year's MTV Video Music Awards (I didn't mention this above, because I figured that, as a live song, it would probably be altered significantly for the album), and I dismissed it immediately, since the hook sounded like a blatant ripoff of A Tribe Called Quest's “Award Tour”. Then Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's moment of glory and everyone stopped caring anyway. (I may be getting the order of those two events wrong.) But in hearing the final product today, I'm happy to report that it isn't a blatant theft of a classic track. It isn't all that great, but Wale sounds poised and confident enough to pull off a reference to MILFs without embarrassing himself. I thought R&B songstress Jazmine Sullivan was wasted until the final minute of the song, though. Not bad, really.
6. LET IT LOOSE (FEAT PHARRELL)
Pharrell Williams continues his current hobby of sullying the Neptunes name by providing Wale with a weak sauce instrumental and some lame vocals focused almost exclusively on throwing your hard-earned money into the air. Wale adapts well enough, and although I'm not a fan of this type of rap song (crafted for the radio first and the fans second), Wale proves to be versatile enough to switch his flow and matches the beat. But yeah, this shit still sucked.
Wale's precautionary tale to young potential starlets in Beverly Hills (hence the clever song title). Most rap songs aren't anti-bulimia, anti-cocaine, or anti-fellatio, and this will probably be the only one to be against all three (at least on a major label, anyway), but even though this story is well-worn territory for other mediums, it's nice to hear that a rapper has also been paying attention. (One could also stretch this into a mataphor for hip hop a la Common, but I think that would be pushing it, as hip hop has never been anti-fellatio.) Mark Ronson's beat (co-produced with Deijon) is minimal and perfect for Wale to structure his bars, making “90210” an unexpected highlight.
8. SHADES (FEAT CHRISETTE MICHELE)
Wale tackles racism in a way that most wouldn't expect from hip hop: he explores the unfair advantages that light-skinned African Americans have versus their darker-skinned counterparts. True, he's mainly using this theme to vent his frustration about not getting much play from the female gender in high school, but he still makes a valid point. Hip hop's go-to songstress Chrisette Michele provides her usual contribution, which is decent but also instantly forgettable: there's something about her voice that sounds fantastic, but it also fails to stick to anything in your mind, causing your synapses to fire blanks whenever her name pops up in an album's credits.
9. CHILLIN' (FEAT LADY GAGA)
The first single, which causes such an uproar from Wale's fan base that Attention Deficit was doomed from the jump, thanks to the Lady Gaga cameo, which was recorded before she became the global hypermegasuperstar she is now. Here's the thing, though: this is actually a really good song. The samples from Steam's “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” are kind of useless today (thanks to Kristinia DeBarge's similar-sounding “Goodbye”, which was on the radio around the same time), but Wale's verses ride the Cool & Dre beat (which reminds me of Rufus and Chaka Khan's “Ain't Nobody”) without missing a step, and Gaga, humbly playing the role of studio singer, provides the hook and a few extra bars that don't intrude on the actual party. Maybe I liked it simply because I don't mind Gaga for the most part. This shit gets a bad rap, but if you listen to it again today, you'll just simply enjoy its pop leanings.
10. TV IN THE RADIO (FEAT K'NAAN)
TV On The Radio, whose Dave Sitek produced and probably titled this track in an overly clever fashion involving a supreme lack of effort (what happened to that Aziz Ansari mixtape, Dave?), always struck me as one of those “cool” bands that hipsters fucking love and nobody else gives a good goddamn about, like Vampire Weekend or the fucking Strokes back in the day. The work behind the boards is much more big-band than I had expected, sounding like an outtake from the Tribe album recorded in between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders that doesn't exist, and the performances of both Wale and K'nann are entertaining. The hook is stupid, but if that's my only complaint, I'll take it.
11. CONTEMPLATE (FEAT RIHANNA)
On which Wale uses a Syience instrumental to wonder about just what the fuck he's doing living life in the first place. The chorus is heavy-handed, beating the listener to within an inch of his life with the theme of the track, but aside from that misstep, the song works, even if Wale approaches Aubrey “Drake” Graham-levels of naval gazing at times.
12. DIARY (FEAT MARSHA AMBROSIUS)
I didn't care for this one. I'm also thinking that the next Floetry album will be released on Neveruary 31st of next year. I hops you're still financially supporting your former singing partner, Marsha.
13. BEAUTIFUL BLISS (FEAT MELANIE RUTHERFORD & J. COLE)
Melanie Rutherford seems to be slowly approaching Chrisette Michele/Marsha Ambrosious-levels of popularity as a go-to R&B hook singer for rap songs: not for nothing do both Chrisette and Marsha also appear on Attention Deficit. J. Cole, poised to become the next big thing in hip hop is Jay-Z (his label's boss) has anything to do with it (read: I'm not expecting much) turns in a pretty fucking impressive guest turn, but this is Wale's show, and he gives listeners two polished verses and a goofy failed attempt at singing, played more for laughs than anything else.
A low-key, freeform, and ultimately ineffective way to end one's debut album. Wale may as well be rhyming over the opening theme music to some boring 1970's romantic dramedy, it's that dull. He then takes on an inappropriately aggressive tone toward the end, so I guess “Prescription” was intended to showcase the dual nature of Wale: instead, it makes him sound kind of like a douche. Oh well, at least the majority of Attention Deficit was pretty good.
THE LAST WORD: Wale's debut, Attention Deficit, may not have been as critically acclaimed as his multiple mixtapes leading up to it, but it's surprisingly entertaining nonetheless. With his first effort, Wale seems to have already mastered the art of straddling the line between hardcore and commercial, turning in fourteen tracks that aim for (and connect with, more often than not) both the radio audience and his already-established fanbase. Most criticisms of Attention Deficit claimed it to be underwhelming, but I feel that Wale comes through as a savvy artist whose every move is calculated enough to sound spontaneous. Maybe the bar was set too high originally, but with the passage of time, Attention Deficit works a lot better than most of the hip hop albums I've listened to this year. Not every bit of it works, of course: I could have done without Gucci Mane (in the entire hip hop genre, not just on this album), and I'm sure a good number of you will bitch about Lady Gaga's cameo (another calculated move to get people talking, although Gaga has obviously garnered more ink lately). But I enjoyed Attention Deficit a great deal, so much so that I would name it one of the better debut albums in recent memory. So yeah, that just happened. If you were nonplussed by this back in 2009, you should give it a spin with some new ears. You may be pleasantly surprised.