Wale, the widely-acclaimed D.C. rapper, has finally dropped his debut album, Attention Deficit. The darling of the indie hip-hop crowd (are they still called backpackers?), Wale has spent the past two or three years meticulously engineering a reputation as a talented lyricist and astute pop culture scrutineer. From “doing justice to Justice,” to dropping a Mixtape About Nothing, to rising up with The Roots, Wall to the A (whose real name is Olubowale Akintimehin) has mastered the art of raising expectations; to say that his first major label attempt was highly anticipated would be an understatement.
Clocking in at 14 songs, Attention Deficit has an expansiveness that belies its modest track list. Wale, trying to refute recent accusations that he lacks personality, touches on a surprising range of topics, jumping almost at random from “persona to persona.” Meditations on “insecurity, bulimia, infidelity, intra-racial discrimination, self-loathing and coked out, aspirational celebrities” form the basis for an ambitious, almost experimental, record.
The results, I think, are mixed. On “Shades” and “Diary” (featuring Marsha Ambrosius doing her best Michael Jackson impersonation), Wale’s remarkably candid thoughts on race and relationships are sincere and profound. I was initially disappointed by “TV in the Radio,” on which K’Naan at first seems to absolutely steal the show, but after repeated listens, Wale’s clever punch-line laden verse (on whack emcees: “It’s utterly baloney / so I’m Muslim to these rappers”) is growing on me.
Less impressive are “Let it Loose” and “Chillin,” the Lady Gaga collaboration Wale made to appease his label:
Attention Deficit’s beats are similarly varied. Spanning saccharine commercialism (“90210”), grimy funk (the excellent “Mirrors” featuring Bun B) and an homage to go-go (the irresistible “Pretty Girls”), the album is nothing if not sonically diverse. The beats are also more complex and polished than most of the beats on Wale’s mixtapes – an obvious benefit, I suppose, of having money to spend on big-name producers like Mark Ronson, The Neptunes and Cool and Dre.
Reaction to Attention Deficit has been generally favourable so far. Metacritic, for example, has it pegged at 77 based on 11 reviews. I tend to agree: the album is certainly no classic, but its successes outweigh its failures, and it boasts enough solid hip-hop tunes to ensure multiple listens. Wale’s creativity and willingness to branch out are a welcomed and refreshing break from the predictability of the hip-hop mainstream. Ultimately, Attention Deficit is a flawed but promising debut, its occasional poor decisions tempered by flashes of raw talent and potential, and it mostly lives up to Wale’s carefully-cultivated reputation.