Hip-hop used to be an artistic terrain that showcased cutting-edge musical innovation. Today, the genre has shown signs of a steep decline into the abyss of complete cultural irrelevance. Plagued by one too many mind-numbingly generic rappers and producers alike, the heart and soul of hip-hop have been drained of creativity. To echo the somewhat prophetic words of Nas, is hip-hop really dead?
I was led to believe so until I heard a young freestyler from Washington D.C. by the name of Olubowale Folarin, better known as Wale. A wordsmith of the stellar kind, the 25-year old was selected to go on tour with mega-producer Mark Ronson during a string of appearances in the UK, despite the fact he still hadn’t recorded a full studio album. Utilizing the Internet as a means of self-promotion, he released a series of mixtapes, including the highly acclaimed “The Mixtape About Nothing” in 2008. His appearance on catchy remixes of Lily Allen’s “Smile” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” made rounds on the blogosphere, shifting more units than a Gucci Mane single on a good day.
That being said, Wale’s debut album, Attention: Deficit does not disappoint. Featuring a bevy of top-notch producers from Mark Ronson to The Neptunes, the album is packed with rhythmic instrumentals and percussion-rich production with distinct influences from D.C.’s go-go funk movement, not to mention rap-duets with Roc Nation’s J.Cole, Somalian rapper K’Naan and Bun B.
The album has its fair share of playful pop-influenced numbers, including “Chillin” featuring Lady Gaga, a feel good tune with tongue-in-cheek one-liners and an arguably catchy hook sampled by Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. Although I feel Wale could have done without the collaboration, he redeems himself in “World Tour” a grand anthem for MCs around the globe featuring raspy vocals from the equally talented Jazmine Sullivan.
Probing deeper into the rapper’s emotional underbelly, Wale teams up with Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius to explore his sensitive side in “Diary” a soulful memoir of a one-sided love affair. He goes on to investigate racism in “Shades”, an honest account of his struggle to accept the color of his skin (“I never fit in with them light skins/ I thought the lighter they was, the better that they life is.”) Moving along the social spectrum, “90210” chronicles the trials and tribulations of young women seeking stardom in Los Angeles, only to become jaded by drug addiction and promiscuity (“Graduated from rosay/ Addicted to blow/ Addicted to stardom/ A wish to blow/ So she kisses the stars/ And gives them a blow.”)
Raw and uncompromising, Wale’s autobiographical narrative illustrates more than just his clever wordplay but rather a poetic aptitude of the highest level. While true hip-hop seems to be a dying expressive art, it is refreshing to see a young artist producing music of substance. Indeed, Wale fits the bill. A diamond in the rough, we have yet to see the best of him. That is the most exciting prospect of all.