You’ve heard of West Coast, East Coast, Detroit, and Dirty South rap — and now, if Wale earns the kind of success he seems poised for, you can count on the next platinum wave in hip-hop coming out of Washington, D.C.
He’s been around for a few years, putting out mixtapes and making cameo appearances on other artists’ albums, and has been a fixture on the D.C. scene since he scored a local hit with 2006’s “Dig Dug (Shake It).” For the national audience, though — particularly casual mainstream listeners — Attention Deficit is Wale’s coming out party. Like a lot of parties, it has its dead spots, but not many — it’s a lot more like House Party than House Party 4: Down to the Last Minute.
Wale’s part of the go-go subgenre, which blends hip-hop with elements of the workout funk pioneered by Chuck Brown, expanded by artists like E.U., and pulled into the sampling era by DJ Kool, whose “Let Me Clear My Throat” gave the genre its last real breakout hit. Anyone who’s been paying attention to artists like Wale will probably bristle at the word, but go-go has been making a sort of limited comeback over the last few years, popping up in the work of artists as diverse as Gym Class Heroes and the Roots (whose “Rising Up” features a guest spot from Wale). Through singles like “Dig Dug” and “Breakdown,” Wale has identified himself with go-go, but don’t go into Attention Deficit expecting it to sound like Trouble Funk — or even DJ Kool; he’s always had more on his mind than one style of hip-hop, and as alluded to by this album’s title, he does a fair amount of hopscotching through Deficit‘s 14 tracks.
This won’t come as any surprise to longtime followers — Wale’s disrespect for cultural boundaries and lyrical thoughtfulness earned national coverage last year through The Mixtape About Nothing, which rests on Seinfeld samples — and if there’s a knock on Attention Deficit, it’s that it finds Wale toning down his restless spirit and making an obvious bid for crossover status. This is going to be a source of disappointment for some listeners, but it’s hard to imagine the album coming together any other way; this is a debut, after all, and even if Wale isn’t as unimaginative as your average MC, he didn’t get where he is by being stupid enough to ignore the masses.
To that end, Attention Deficit has its share of “what the?” moments, including a pair of better-than-you’d-think production appearances from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, but for the most part, Wale’s more esoteric inclinations take a back seat to bright, radio-ready arrangements, shrewdly chosen cameos (that’s Lady Gaga singing the hook on the leadoff single, “Chillin'”), and the sheer pleasure of listening to his fluid flow, which can be dizzyingly percussive (“TV in the Radio,” a stylistic love letter to Wale’s biggest stated influence, Black Thought) or pensive (the appropriately named “Contemplate”). And although the album isn’t above tired rap cliches — Wale closes things out by listing his bona fides and declaring “I am hip-hop” — it also makes plenty of room for left-field pop culture references (NES classics get a pair of nods in “Mama Told Me”) and clever turns of phrase (like the “Beautiful Bliss” laugher “‘Pac said fuck the world, and I ain’t come yet”). It’s slick, in other words, but it’s also smart, and it should find an immediate home in the playlists of Kanye-weaned listeners with a fondness for brassy, glitter-dusted hip-hop.