Deficit Pending So far, Wale's debut is a commercial dud. Is that bad for D.C. hip-hop?

Outside-the-Beltway Mentality: Wale has had trouble breaking through on both sides of the District line.

Olubowale Victor Akintimehin faced an enormous hurdle before eventually becoming D.C. hip-hop’s great hope: Getting D.C. to care about having a rap savior in the first place. In a city where rap will always be a distant second to go-go, the man who chose the stage name Wale diligently stuck to the local-rapper playbook. He adapted the go-go sound —“Dig Dug” paid homage to the Northeast Groover percussionist of the same name, “1 Thing About a Playa” repurposed Backyard Band—and spoke directly to the D.C. experience with songs like “Uptown Roamers” and “Nike Boots.” These songs never became citywide anthems, but they did garner some national attention. He was discovered by celebrity DJ Mark Ronson, who would later sign him to his Allido label, which is distributed by Interscope.

Cue the hype machine. There were awards-show appearances, magazine covers, rabid blog coverage, and international tours. The Washington Post called him D.C.’s “Great Rap Hope” two years before he even made an album. And as the voice of D.C. hip hop, naturally Wale moved to New York to record his debut. Along the way, his Seinfeld-inspired Mixtape About Nothing became a critical favorite to a point of almost absurdity; he guested on Travis Barker’s forthcoming solo album.

Wale’s much-anticipated LP, Attention Deficit, came out on Nov. 10. As of Dec. 8, it’s sold just 47,000 units. What happened to the guy GQ dubbed “the greatest rapper since Jay-Z”?

For one thing, Jay-Z spent 10 years honing his skills, delivering marginal guest appearances, and serving as hype man for more popular rappers before releasing his own debut album. (And even though that record, Reasonable Doubt, made an enormous splash in hip-hop, several years went by before the media establishment noticed.) Wale’s wobbly career arc makes a strong argument that today’s industry values discovery far more than development. And it’s not easy to develop when you’ve got an entire city’s hopes supposedly riding on your back.

Worse, on the album, Wale loses his identity by adopting every identity. Attention Deficit plays like a schizophrenic display of market research, with cameos from Lady Gaga, Pharrell, and Canadian-African conscious rapper K’naan. A few tracks revisit the playful, go-go-inspired vibe that first drew the attention of labels and fans.

A guest shot from Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane on the album's second single, "Pretty Girls" could be viewed as just another concession to an outside demographic: Gucci has been neck in neck with Jeezy for the title of the new king of the ATL.

But in running that regional race, Gucci managed to win over not only hometown listeners and Southern rap fans, but critics, bloggers, and lovers of New York hip-hop. And before becoming the most buzzed-about MC in the game, Gucci was something even more important. He was the most popular street rapper in D.C.

While Wale was feting DJ AM with Kid Cudi on national TV, Gucci was spending time tilling his backyard. His mixtapes quietly flooded the streets of his hometown, and from there they spread to other cities by simple word of mouth. D.C. was one of the earliest adopters, and odds are if you heard rap music blaring from a car in the past 18 months it was Gucci’s, not Wale’s. That Wale decided to throw Gucci on an interpolation of Backyard Band’s go-go classic was no coincidence—it was a two-pronged attempt to rally his base. That he had to call on an out-of-town rapper to do so speaks volumes.

The Gucci Mane model should be a given in hip-hop. Artists don’t break cities; cities break artists. Too Short drained the swamp in Oakland after years of hustling tapes locally. No Limit Records made New Orleans explode with a roster of hometown-hardened superstars. These acts were selling hundreds of thousands of records before they got on MTV. Wale’s D.C. following was minor at best. Many of the city’s rap listeners were completely unaware of his existence prior to the above-ground buzz onslaught. That they now know his name doesn’t instill the sort of loyalty that a true homegrown star creates. The support is there, perhaps, but not fandom.

Still, something interesting happened in Wale’s absence. His success, actual or perceived, has inspired many kids in the area to pick up the mic and motivated many in the existing rap scene to buckle down and get serious about their craft. Acts like Diamond District, Kingpen Slim, Don Juan, and many others are dropping great albums and mixtapes and beginning to get serious attention on both local and national levels. Wale didn’t open the door; he simply let his peers know that there is one. So maybe his exodus and relative failure was a necessity. If this international rap superstar thing doesn’t work out for him, he can always return home to a fully formed hip-hop community.

VIDEO: Wale, "Chillin'" feat. Lady Gaga

Our Readers Say

In a market where platinum artists like Juvenile only sell 23,000 units in their first week, Wale's first week numbers of roughly 28,000 actually seem far more impressive. Baby and Jay Sean both had massive radio hits and only sold roughly 30,000 each in their respective first weeks. It's a tough market, period, and selling 28,000 is a virtual miracle for a new rap artist in the fourth quarter. You need to look at those numbers in the perspective of the overall market. Interscope also shipped roughly 30,000 copies, so Wale sold a huge percentage of the physical units available for sale across the country (duly noting that some of his 28,000 first week sales were digital).

I think this is a strong start for a new artist from a market not known for rap music, who received relatively little airplay compared with the rappers he was up against (50 Cent debuted on iTunes the same week as Wale, for example).
I would also add that there is already a "fully formed hip-hop community" in DC and there has been for over ten years. Please don't erase the history and hard work of people like Infinite Loop, Team Demolition (who recently produced 50 Cent's buzzing street record, "Crimewave"), Slimkat78, Opus Akoben (group member Kokayi being nominated for a Grammy in 2008), and many more.

Local media has been running this "DC is a go-go town and hip-hop is the underdog here" at least since Sub-Z and Priest were on the cover of the Washington City Paper over ten years ago. Please pursue a new angle. Hip-hop has existed here for some time and there is a sizable audience for it that deserves to be acknowledged and respected.

DMV Love,

Spirit Equality
Once upon a time' I liked Hip-Hop. It was fresh and innovative.
Not any more.
I think its a stinging indictment on black culture when even Africans use the N word profusely, which is one of the reasons I'm tired of rap, and not interested in Wale.
DC Hiphop is on Bigfoot status: everyone claims to have seen it, but few really have.

It's the old 'if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound' quandry.

His units moved are actually pretty good considering; but his style is just 'regular'. Not wack, not fiyah, just regular.

And Wale isn't alone with his perceptions of 'hate'; the Clipse said the same thing during an interview about how VA didn't embrace them initially.

I wish him well regardless
This guy Andrew Noz is clearly not from DC, at least not east of the river. Wale was doing show with UCB well before he became famous. Uptown Roamers and Nike Boots were actually DC anthems. This writer probably didn't see Wale at Howard Homecoming 2008 getting more love than any other artist there before Mixtape about Nothing and was not nationally known.

Also, Wale was not discovered by Mark Ronson but by Kenny Burns the former president of Rocafella Records and DC native, which is the label the rapper XO is on.

To compare Wale to Gucci Mane is also dumb. Gucci Mane has about 3 albums and is known in DC now because Asylum Records was going to making his first mainstream album so they hit the mixtape circuit to create a buzz. This is nothing new, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and the list goes on. Corporations mine rappers like they do any raw material that is to be exploited.

The big problem people like this writer hate on Wale just to influence the bourgosie hip hopers who no nothing about the culture, especially DC culture.

Wale's only problem is that he tried to go pop too soon and has a lot of white folks in his ear that don't have his interest in mind. They didn't have his album at Target the first week of his album's release in THIS AREA, that is just basic. That was Interscope and his white managers fault. That's no reason to hate on him when you clearly have no clue what you are talking about
I agree with AI, before you judge, get the facts right. The underground circuit for distribution in DC is completely different from ATL and the NO. Attention Deficit shows Wale's diversity and flexibilty in my opinion, not to mention the fact that the artists that he collaborated with help to stamp his credibilty. As the record shows, how many artists have come out of DC? How many of them had to leave in order to really make it, and how many of them claim DC? Whether you accept it or not, Wale is making a way for rappers out of DC, and now that he is signed to Roc Nation with Jay, its even better. When it comes to Wale, slow motion is better than no motion "Wale feels the patience has paid off. "I could have had an album out five months after I signed, but that's not what I wanted. It's about solidifying a brand," he says. "I might not go platinum at first, but I connect with people and can slowly make that impact.(" As far as I'm concerned, mission accomplished thus far and more success for Wale to come.
I think Wale bit off more than he could chew with Attention Deficit. He tries to show us who he is and ends up seeming shallow. It looks like the thing that was so good about The Mixtape About Nothing was the Seinfeld.

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