It seems odd that a young mixtape rhymer from Washington D.C. — a city not exactly known for breeding hip-hop heavyweights — would blossom into a virtual megastar over the course of a year, but then, the world of rap is becoming increasingly odd. (Gucci Mane is the genre’s biggest cult hero? Kid Cudi is making better records than Jay-Z?) Wale, for one, is reaping the benefits: 18 months after his Seinfeld-inspired juggernaut The Mixtape About Nothing, this 25-year-old tongue-twister has reached Lil Wayne levels of omnipresence. He’s worked with John Mayer. He’s performed at the VMAs. And he’s commanded the undivided attention of every Internet nerd in the Western hemisphere. The independent music press has covered Wale’s development with the kind of enthusiasm it once reserved for LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip.
If Wale is the heir apparent to Lil Wayne’s throne, then Attention: Deficit is his Tha Carter III — the pivotal moment of truth, indubitable proof of whether or not a rapper’s raw talent can be channeled into a riveting LP. Kicking freestyles alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus is all well and good, but MCs live and die based solely on one daunting criteria: Can they craft a masterful album, one that simultaneously justifies the praise and invalidates the criticism?
Evidently, Wale is up to the task. Attention: Deficit seems poised to satisfy his blogger-heavy fan base (cameos from Bun B, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, and the aforementioned Gucci Mane will ensure that), but the record deserves to be lauded. The rookie blunders are kept to a minimum, and Wale’s mesmeric talent — the left-field punchlines, the charmingly laid-back flows, the nakedly emotional storytelling — is enhanced by lively beats that juggle eclectic synth-pop with throwback soul. Perhaps no track on the album exemplifies this vigor better than the appropriately titled opener “Triumph”: Over muted bongos, grinding organs, and soul-drenched Memphis horns, Wale waxes goofiness about everything from Slumdog Millionaire to the apparent allure of British chicks.
By contrast, he gets pointedly political on “Mama Told Me,” which, content aside, evokes images of summer parades and 10 o’clock brunches with its blissfully lazy horns: “They’d only be happy with a minstrel actor/ Sorry, Mr. Charlie, won’t tap dance.” Over the feathery soul of “Shades,” he chronicles the alienation he felt as the child of Nigerian immigrants in his predominantly African-American neighborhood, displaying a candid vulnerability that’s sadly foreign to hip-hop. Even the somewhat preachy musings of Bun B resonate on “Mirrors,” which rides a rumbling, mid-tempo funk guitar.
Having fun is a clear priority of Wale’s, though. The smooth-rolling number “TV in the Radio” brings his penchant for unorthodox one-liners to the forefront with a head-turning reference to Roseanne Barr; the terse sci-fi track “Let It Loose” includes a typically girl-crazed hook from Pharrell. But just when you think Wale understands the consequences of mindlessly horny partying — “90210” is endlessly engaging and palpably honest in its depiction of a young, bulimia-addled club-hopper — he gives us the dumb, cheaply agreeable Lady Gaga feature “Chillin’.” “Pretty Girls” is more of the same, but while the synth-schmaltz beat, jazz-lounge hook, and Gucci Mane guest spot undoubtedly sound like a ghastly combination, it works inexplicable wonders.
Even Attention: Deficit’s missteps — including the drearily menacing “Contemplate” — are camouflaged by the emotion that overflows elsewhere. “Prescription,” a jazzy homage to the frustrated everyman, and understatedly triumphant “World Tour” are particularly memorable. The Mixtape About Nothing is still worth spinning, but clearly, this is an album with a purpose.