It can be hard writing about music, all the “dancing about architecture” stuff aside. You want to say something that will evoke what’s coming through the speakers sometimes, what it makes you feel other times. Actually, forget writing about music; the hard thing sometimes is just listening to it in the first place. Music is all about context. First of all, there’s the pile of emotional baggage that some artists’ work carries with it. Then you also have to deal with a web of connections and connotations that comes with a lifetime of listening to music. Sometimes this is a good thing, especially when that past experience reminds you of something—a throwaway line or bit of phrasing, lyrical or otherwise—that somehow deepens and enriches the experience.
Sometimes, though, it’s just frustrating. I’m reminded of the more frustrating aspect listening to Wale’s debut effort, Attention Deficit.
There’s a twofold problem in listening to rap past a certain age. First off, it’s a young person’s game. Artists like Chuck D, the Beastie Boys, and KRS-ONE, for instance, are among the genre’s elder statesmen; it’s hard to envision some of these artists still doing it when they’re pushing 70, a la Jagger-Richards (though Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, the elder statesmen’s elders, point a possible way forward).
Second, it’s also, just maybe, a young person’s game if you’re a listener as well. If you’re of a certain age—say, mid-thirties or older—you’re old enough to have caught pretty much all this stuff, from the Sugarhill Gang and UTFO to the first, second, and all subsequent comings of LL Cool J, to Pac and Biggie to Jurassic 5 and Kool Keith to NWA to Outkast to Eminem to whatever comes next. Hip hop brings with it a sense of history; it’s been around long enough that it’s splintered into different subgenres, it’s gone global, and it’s had its fair share of mindblowing moments.
So I come to Wale with a certain set of expectations, the same as I would an album from any other genre. I can’t shake all that’s gone before, and Wale isn’t helping matters any. A new disc, by any artist — especially one I’ve never heard before — is all possibilities. You put the CD in the player, cross your fingers, and wait for the moment when, if your mind isn’t blown and your way of seeing the world at least subtly altered, at least you will have heard something which, by virtue of its creativity and newness, makes you want to rush out and tell your friends. You think, in short, “This could be it.”
I can’t fault Wale for not being MC 900 Ft. Jesus, not being the Roots, not even being Jay-Z or Kanye (not that I think the latter is much to aspire to). From the sound of it, he’s just trying to be Wale, which is all well and good, only he’s not altogether there yet. Some of the disc chugs along to an old-school vibe that’s agreeable enough but not all that adventuresome (the radio-ready “Beautiful Bliss”), while some of the rest tries too hard to be au courant (“Let it Loose”) or sounds like someone else’s castoffs (the Jurassic 5-inflected “Mirror”).
From the disc’s opener, “Triumph,” to the last notes of its closer, “Prescription,” Wale hints around, and gives glimpses of, some genuine potential. Sometimes, though, you really have to dig for it to even begin to dig it. There’s some bright spots to the backing tracks, which throw snippets of Kool and the Gang, Yann Tiersen (!), A Tribe Called Quest and a ton of other stuff into the mix. The lyrics veer from oh-shit creativity (you kinda have to give props to somebody who can name check Bret Harte and Brett Favre in the same phrase) to stuff that’s, well, a bit of a disappointment; there’s at least as much internal contradiction as internal rhyme here. Alright, not everybody’s going to be Foucault on wax, but the lyrical high points on the disc (like the Chrisette Michele collaboration “Shades,” where Wale takes a long, hard look at black-on-black racism, including his own) get dragged back down into the muck, even on some of the catchier tunes like “World Tour,” by the usual dick-grabbing egotism and I-gots-mine tropes that too often pass for “keeping it real” these days. You can’t help but wonder how different the disc might’ve sounded had Wale and co. just been their own bad selves rather than worrying about proclaiming themselves arbiters of the “real.”
Guest spots are all over Attention Deficit, which — for this listener at least — isn’t always a great move. Sometimes these casting decisions (and they are that) come off as though they’re more about marketing, than artistic, considerations. 50,000 Lady Ga Ga fans can’t be… well, maybe they can. Never mind. But I digress. If they’re not done right, the artists with the higher star “wattage” end up stealing the thunder of the person who, by rights, is supposed to be the headliner. By way of analogy, go back and listen to “Scenario,” by A Tribe Called Quest. For a crew with a less-defined sense of self, or a still embryonic artistic identity, that Busta Rhymes cameo could well have been the kiss of death, instead of being a defining moment for all parties involved. It’s hard to see, in most cases, exactly who gains what by the cameos on this outing. K’Naan’s turn on “TV in the Radio” steals the spotlight (the Somali rapper not only turns in a pretty convincing performance, he literally gets in the last word on the track); Lady GaGa’s cameo on “Chillin’” doesn’t do much but make you think how much better the cut would’ve sounded with MIA doing MIA than GaGa doing MIA. And don’t get me started on Pharrell, who’s as ubiquitious as dogshit lately, and about as useful.
Hip hop has a saviour about every, oh, six months or so, half self-anointed and the other half anointed by a music press that promptly forgets them just as soon as the next messiah crops up. It’s hard to say which of these categories Wale falls into. But the simulatneous shame and promise of this disc is that it begins to hint at what Wale might be capable of if he stops believing the hype, regardless of whence it comes.