Wale takes D.C. to the top of Billboard chart

Washington’s first rap star has his first No. 1 album.

Wale’s “The Gifted,” sold 158,000 copies in its first week, knocking Kanye West’s “Yeezus” from the top spot and cementing fame for a 28-year-old rapper who’s been anxiously pursuing it for a decade.

And while it’s been an against-the-odds odyssey from Wale’s childhood home on Peabody Street NW to the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, having a No. 1 album isn’t exactly what it used to be.

For more than a decade, the record industry has been struggling to recover from the blows of digital file sharing, with album sales perpetually sliding toward oblivion. Accordingly, the sales figures required to lift an release to the peak of the charts have dropped considerably. In 2011, singer-songwriter Amos Lee had the blushable honor of scoring the lowest-selling No. 1 album of all time, selling a paltry 40,000 copies of his fourth disc, “Mission Bell.” (Later that year, Wale’s sophomore album, “Ambition,” would premiere at No. 2, selling 164,000 copies.)

Since then, Billboard’s album chart has been a turbulent place, with new champions arriving nearly every week. Only the biggest names defy the odds. In 2013, Taylor Swift, Mumford & Sons and Daft Punk have kept their albums floating at No. 1 for two consecutive weeks. Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” planted its feet at the summit for three weeks.

Rapper Wale reflects on fame, the inspiration for his new album, “The Gifted,” and what it means to be a rapper from the District. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

But for the rest of the year, the top spot has been occupied by one soundtrack — “Les Miserables” — and 18 other artists, including Wale. Among them: Justin Bieber, Paramore, Lady Antebellum and Vampire Weekend, whose “Modern Vampires of the City” moved 134,000 copies in its first week. (Like Wale, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij grew up in the District.)

Historically, how have other Washingtonians fared on Billboard’s album chart? District native Marvin Gaye had his share of hit singles but never had a No. 1 album — his 1973 masterpiece “Let’s Get It on” peaked at No. 2 on the albums chart.

Fugazi, the fiercely independent D.C. punk band, first cracked Billboard in 1993 with its third full-length, “In on the Kill Taker,” selling more than 100,000 copies in its first week. But in the ’90s, with the record business booming, those figures only got Fugazi to No. 153.

Although the aftershocks of file sharing have dampened the sparkle of a No. 1 album in the 21st century, the success of “The Gifted” is still a massive victory for Wale — especially in the hip-hop universe, where the rapper feels he hasn’t been shown the appreciation he deserves.

Before Wale, only two rappers had topped the albums chart in 2013, West and A$AP Rocky. That, of course, is expected to change very soon with the release of Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” available Thursday to 1 million Samsung mobile-phone users. Billboard doesn’t count those transactions as sales, but the album is still likely to land high on the charts.

So, while Wale’s visit to the tiptop of pop music might not last very long, will it at least calm his anxieties about recognition and respect?

On Twitter, he was celebrating the likelihood of a No. 1 album days before the Billboard’s Wednesday announcement but still couldn’t ignore the taunts of his digital detractors.

“[Haters] tryna troll durin my victory lap,” the rapper tweeted Monday. They “don’t even brush they teeth before they get in my situation daily. Won’t ruin my day nope.”

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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