Olubowale Victor Akintimehin faced an enormous hurdle before eventually becoming D.C. hip-hop’s great hope: Getting D.C. to care about having a rap savior in the first place. In a city where rap will always be a distant second to go-go, the man who chose the stage name Wale diligently stuck to the local-rapper playbook. He adapted the go-go sound —“Dig Dug” paid homage to the Northeast Groover percussionist of the same name, “1 Thing About a Playa” repurposed Backyard Band—and spoke directly to the D.C. experience with songs like “Uptown Roamers” and “Nike Boots.” These songs never became citywide anthems, but they did garner some national attention. He was discovered by celebrity DJ Mark Ronson, who would later sign him to his Allido label, which is distributed by Interscope.
Cue the hype machine. There were awards-show appearances, magazine covers, rabid blog coverage, and international tours. The Washington Post called him D.C.’s “Great Rap Hope” two years before he even made an album. And as the voice of D.C. hip hop, naturally Wale moved to New York to record his debut. Along the way, his Seinfeld-inspired Mixtape About Nothing became a critical favorite to a point of almost absurdity; he guested on Travis Barker’s forthcoming solo album.
Wale’s much-anticipated LP, Attention Deficit, came out on Nov. 10. As of Dec. 8, it’s sold just 47,000 units. What happened to the guy GQ dubbed “the greatest rapper since Jay-Z”?
For one thing, Jay-Z spent 10 years honing his skills, delivering marginal guest appearances, and serving as hype man for more popular rappers before releasing his own debut album. (And even though that record, Reasonable Doubt, made an enormous splash in hip-hop, several years went by before the media establishment noticed.) Wale’s wobbly career arc makes a strong argument that today’s industry values discovery far more than development. And it’s not easy to develop when you’ve got an entire city’s hopes supposedly riding on your back.
Worse, on the album, Wale loses his identity by adopting every identity. Attention Deficit plays like a schizophrenic display of market research, with cameos from Lady Gaga, Pharrell, and Canadian-African conscious rapper K’naan. A few tracks revisit the playful, go-go-inspired vibe that first drew the attention of labels and fans.
A guest shot from Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane on the album’s second single, “Pretty Girls” could be viewed as just another concession to an outside demographic: Gucci has been neck in neck with Jeezy for the title of the new king of the ATL.
But in running that regional race, Gucci managed to win over not only hometown listeners and Southern rap fans, but critics, bloggers, and lovers of New York hip-hop. And before becoming the most buzzed-about MC in the game, Gucci was something even more important. He was the most popular street rapper in D.C.
While Wale was feting DJ AM with Kid Cudi on national TV, Gucci was spending time tilling his backyard. His mixtapes quietly flooded the streets of his hometown, and from there they spread to other cities by simple word of mouth. D.C. was one of the earliest adopters, and odds are if you heard rap music blaring from a car in the past 18 months it was Gucci’s, not Wale’s. That Wale decided to throw Gucci on an interpolation of Backyard Band’s go-go classic was no coincidence—it was a two-pronged attempt to rally his base. That he had to call on an out-of-town rapper to do so speaks volumes.
The Gucci Mane model should be a given in hip-hop. Artists don’t break cities; cities break artists. Too Short drained the swamp in Oakland after years of hustling tapes locally. No Limit Records made New Orleans explode with a roster of hometown-hardened superstars. These acts were selling hundreds of thousands of records before they got on MTV. Wale’s D.C. following was minor at best. Many of the city’s rap listeners were completely unaware of his existence prior to the above-ground buzz onslaught. That they now know his name doesn’t instill the sort of loyalty that a true homegrown star creates. The support is there, perhaps, but not fandom.
Still, something interesting happened in Wale’s absence. His success, actual or perceived, has inspired many kids in the area to pick up the mic and motivated many in the existing rap scene to buckle down and get serious about their craft. Acts like Diamond District, Kingpen Slim, Don Juan, and many others are dropping great albums and mixtapes and beginning to get serious attention on both local and national levels. Wale didn’t open the door; he simply let his peers know that there is one. So maybe his exodus and relative failure was a necessity. If this international rap superstar thing doesn’t work out for him, he can always return home to a fully formed hip-hop community.