Drawing “Attention”

Boston Globe, January 15, 2010

An aerial pan of the Capitol and Washington Monument opens the video for “Chillin,” the lead single from Wale’s debut album, “Attention Deficit.” To the song’s plump, bouncy beat, a sequence of D.C. images unfolds: Obama posters on hollowed-out buildings, street signs on Georgia Avenue, the football powerhouse Cardozo High School (“Home of the Clerks”), Wale and crew drawing a crowd outside Ben’s Chili Bowl.

And in the midst of all this: Lady Gaga.

The apparition of the blond-bobbed pop gadfly – delivering a pleasant sing-songy hook that makes her sound a lot like M.I.A. – is just one of the detours that Wale (pronounced wah-LAY) has taken on this album, long-awaited in hip-hop circles, from the genre’s dogma of hard-edged authenticity.

The record’s apparent pop orientation – it also features Gucci Mane, Pharrell, and Chrisette Michele – contrasts with the underground feel of Wale’s five mix-tapes, which have supplied the 25-year-old with a considerable body of work in advance of his first official album. Opportunities to tour with superstar DJ Mark Ronson and, more recently, with Jay-Z have only increased the buzz.

Against this backdrop, the music-blogger crowd has given “Attention Deficit” a mixed reception, suspecting some combination of a commercial play, overdirection from label Interscope, or a desire on the young artist’s part to be all things to all people.

Wale shrugs this off. “Your man Wale in his own damn lane,” he sings on “Chillin.” He elaborates on the phone from Los Angeles, during a break in the video shoot for “Pretty Girls,” the next single.

“I just make music; I make songs,” says Wale, who plays Harpers Ferry tomorrow night. “I don’t want to say the same things over and over again. I’m telling stories now.”

He reels off the song titles: “Shades,” a blunt and affecting piece about skin tone, anchored in his own discomfort growing up in a family of immigrants (his parents are Nigerian) and having to navigate the cultural politics of the American black community. He cites “TV in the Radio” as well, his sardonic take on mediocrity in hip-hop.

But Wale’s not here to save the genre. He’s more of an eclectic navigator of today’s scattershot pop scene who happens to possess keen lyrical talent and a classic D.C. taste for propulsive go-go beats. (He often plays with the go-go band UCB.)

This has led him down seemingly disparate paths: a concept mix-tape, “The Mixtape About Nothing” full of elements inspired by “Seinfeld”; an Afrobeat-backed track with Somali-American rapper K’Naan sharing thoughts on immigration and dreams of America; verses on a Lily Allen remix and a track by French dance act Justice.

“He allows himself to be exposed as much as anyone,” says Rich Kleiman, Wale’s manager and Ronson’s partner in the imprint Allido Records. Kleiman says he and Ronson first encountered Wale’s music by chance, when Ronson opened an e-mail “almost at random” and was impressed by the track it contained. “It was intriguing to see someone not afraid to take risks, someone whose mind is moving constantly.”

If Wale is comfortable across a broad spectrum of styles, it may be thanks to growing up in the D.C. area, where hip-hop has always taken a back seat to go-go and no dominant rap canon emerged.

At this early stage in his career, Wale is already the most famous rapper the nation’s capital has produced. “I think that was always one of his motivations,” Kleiman says, “the fact that so few artists from D.C. ventured out to become a mainstream success.”

Also lurking beneath Wale’s hip-hop swagger is the process of coming to terms with his immigrant background. Growing up, he kept his hip-hop aspirations away from his family.

“They didn’t really know about it,” he says. “My mother didn’t watch MTV. It wasn’t hard to block it out from a 40-year-old Nigerian woman. Before they could form an opinion about it, it was too late.”

Now Wale says he is ready to make his first trip to Nigeria. He hears he has a fan base there, and Kleiman says a tour being planned.

It’s all a heady transformation for a young rapper who, for all his underground reputation and high-power industry friendships, is still a debut artist pushing his first commercial project and hoping to catch on.

“I’m in the very, very beginning stages,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m in the spotlight. I could easily have been two seconds too slow or 20 pounds too heavy for the NFL, with bad knees, working at a community center. Who knows? I just try to count my blessings.”