Wale opens a panderer's box
Washington rapper's conflicted CD has a little something for everyone

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hip-hop isn't dead -- it's just going through a monumental identity crisis.

Jay-Z clings to his credibility while Miley Cyrus gives him a shout-out on her latest single. Kanye West follows an awards show outburst with a blog apology that feels both petulant and contrite. Lil Wayne tells Katie Couric he's a gangster, then takes her bowling.

If hip-hop -- once our most radical, rebellious popform -- is finally congealing into the snoozy status quo, how can today's rappers feel anything but conflicted?

The genre's latest ball of contradictions comes bouncing out of Washington, D.C. His name is Wale, and after a two-year slog through the record industry's broken-down hype machine, his major-label debut "Attention Deficit," finally arrives Tuesday. It's a stellar offering from a wildly gifted rapper, but almost predictably, Wale's feelings are mixed.

"I won't rest till I'm given my respect," he proclaims on "Triumph," as if fame is something he deserves.

"Am I doing this for them or me?" he second-guesses on "Contemplate," as if fame is something he dreads.

And back and forth it goes, with the rapper's sticky, dexterous flow holding the proceedings together like so much rubber cement.

For proof of Wale's lyrical acrobatics, look no further than "Pretty Girls," where the rapper's best pickup line involves two bottles of champagne, a football joke and a healthy credit rating: "What you sippin' on? It's no problem/Black and gold bottles like I'm pro-New Orleans/But shorty, I'm far from a Saint/But I got two AmExes that look the same way."

This is some masterful wordplay -- with an emphasis on play -- and it makes for the album's most dazzling cut. The song's thundering, go-go-inflected track helps, too. Production duo Best Kept Secret built it around a sample from local stalwarts Backyard Band and it sounds like a house party crumbling in an earthquake. How it will fare on national radio is anyone's guess, but for locals fluent in go-go, "Pretty Girls" is a thriller.

Wale has a fantastic ear for beats, though you wouldn't know it after hearing "Attention Deficit" in its entirety. There's some real dreck from producers Mark Ronson ("90210") and the Neptunes ("Let It Loose"). Wale is either adopting the please-all-audiences model West popularized, or his label's invisible hand is fussing with the dials. (In a delicious stroke of irony, Interscope reportedly zapped a song from the track list titled "Artistic Integrity.")

Sometimes pandering to the masses isn't such a bad idea. The album's lead single "Chillin," is a club-friendly romper with a chorus co-hosted by ascendant weirdo Lady Gaga. Purists balked at the collaboration when it hit the blogosphere last spring, dismissing it as too left field. Had M.I.A. or Rihanna belted that same exact hook, this tune would still be taking hourly victory laps across the airwaves. And there's a precedent here, too. Does anyone remember back in 1985, when local go-go icons E.U. crossed paths with pop-eccentric-turned-gay-culture-icon Grace Jones?

By the end of his 14-track, big-league debut, Wale sounds nothing less than harried, hustling to please the gods of Billboard, radio, MTV, the blogosphere and his home town. But with "Mirrors" he tries to brush those extraneous pressures off his shoulders with his most poignant line: "What the fans can't see, that mirror gonna notice."

What a concept: a rapper who answers to an audience of one.

Download these "Pretty Girls," "Mirrors," "World Tour," "Chillin"

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