Wale is feeling the pressure. He is convinced he’s got the city’s hip-hop hopes and dreams on his shoulders, after all, and he even suspects the future of rap itself hinges on his fate. “I’ve been called the heir apparent,” he raps on his new song “Mama Told Me.” “Not D.C., this whole fucking genre.” It may sound arrogant, but if folks like Black Thought, Jay-Z, and Bun B said you were the second coming, you might start believing it, too.
His long-awaited major label debut, Attention Deficit, is his platform for establishing a clear vision for hip-hop, but Wale first needs to establish a clear vision of himself. Fleshing out his own identity proves difficult, however, and it takes him the better part of an hour to paint a blurry self portrait. He contends he’s neither a minstrel rapper, gangster rapper, or emo rapper—although he invites members of each subgenre for guest appearances—but rather a sort of scholar tough. This allows him to characterize himself both as the underdog and the favorite. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play either part particularly well.
Sure, Kanye West and Kid Cudi can get away with such flip-flopping and self-doubt, but Wale refuses to own his existential confusion (perhaps because his canon-member mentors are supremely confident). Which is why Attention Deficit comes off as a meekly-delivered boast, a question disguised as a statement. Wale is a kid dressed up in a man’s suit, and it’s downright uncomfortable watching him struggle. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the realest of them all?” he asks on “Mirrors,” and doesn’t bother answering.
Wale never before claimed to be the stoic, uncompromising rap warrior, and that’s what made him interesting. In 2007 and 2008 he won hearts by rhyming introspectively over Justice and Lily Allen beats without shame and crafting brilliant mixtapes. Last year’s The Mixtape About Nothing was genius in both its simplicity and its execution; featuring audio clips from Seinfeld, it allowed Wale a platform to riff on the show’s themes, from compromise to ennui to self-loathing. (Michael Richards’ onstage breakdown even gave Wale an opportunity to explore the ramifications of “n” word usage, which he did so as poignantly as anyone). Having not yet been anointed the savior of hip-hop, he spent little time puffing out his chest, and when he did so it was usually with an air of self-deprecation or humor. “I thank my connect,” he rapped over Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” beat. “Not the link to it, I’m thinkin’ the Internet.”
Somewhere along the way, however, either Wale or his benefactors decided it was time to stop fooling around, and thus Attention Deficit is that dreaded Deadly Serious Album—one that contains only passing traces of humor, indie rock samples, and not a single detectable Saved By the Bell reference. Instead of a shout out from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, we get “Chillin’,” a collaboration with Lady Gaga that samples Steam’s woefully unironic 1969 hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” leaving readers of The Fader completely dumbfounded.
And indeed, like a woman who has abruptly decided to reject her nerdy paramour’s affections, Wale has dumped the hipster demographic entirely. He has decided it is time to morph from a smart, geeky Daily Planet type into rap’s would-be man of steel. “I am hip hop/Past, present, and future,” he says, arrogantly, after a line about “tipping strippers properly” in the album’s final stanza. “I can rap on some old Primo/Sound like the present Sigel/And make it feel like a sequel/To the new me, bitch.”
Wale’s clearly clueless about what he wants out of life, which is a state any intellectually-curious 25-year-old is bound to find himself in at times. But Attention Deficit has bigger problems. Though Wale’s prodigious skills on the mic remain intact—particularly his unique, slightly gruff, ever-pleading flow—there’s not a single laugh out loud punch line here. Considering the frequency with which he tossed them off on mixtapes and guest appearances (“Good rappers ain’t eating, they Olsen-twinin’” etc.) this is downright shocking.
Equally troubling is the fact that, despite employing a diverse cast of A-list producers (TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, Cool & Dre, DJ Green Lantern, 9th Wonder) the album lacks anything in the way of a banger, anything with half the intensity of “Nike Boots,” the 2007 ode to DMV self-preservation that kicked off his career. The closest we get is the “World Tour,” a collaboration with a breathy Jazmine Sullivan, who has rarely sounded better than on the song’s triumphant, power-chord-fueled chorus. Of course, the victory-lap lyrics of “Wold Tour” feel cribbed from Lupe Fiasco’s “Paris, Tokyo,” which is also about globe-trotting but possesses a playful tone that this lacks.
It appears Wale has taken Interscope’s department of hip-hop strategy’s notes, rather than trusting the instincts that brought him this far. Of course, someone as unsure about his identity as Wale—and under as much pressure—should be forgiven for being a tad persuadable. But a collaboration with Pharrell featuring an early-aughts retread beat and the Lauper-lite chorus, “All the girls really want is fun”—seriously? In Wale’s defense, “Let It Loose” at times appears to parody the N.E.R.D. aesthetic, but that’s probably being too charitable.
Though there’s not much in the way of local sound on Attention Deficit, Wale references D.C. almost constantly, as if attempting to distance himself from the people who are ruining his career. Doing so also makes him sound homesick, as if he wished said world tour were over. Things were so much simpler when he was simply a free-associating cool kid, the popular prime minister of a regional market instead of the would-be leader of rap’s free world. “God give me strength, Allah give me patience,” he raps on “Mama Told Me.” “I am only a man, and I don’t know what to think.”