To avoid embarrassment, know that the name is not pronounced like a certain Pixar feature or aquatic mammal. It’s Wah-LAY. Nigerian roots are responsible for the adopted name of the D.C. rapper born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin who — drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Seinfeld (The Mixtape About Nothing), multinational companies (“Nike Boots”) and local musical flavor (go-go)—continues to gain popularity and critical praise in an ever-burgeoning and increasingly diverse hip-hop community.
If you were to say that hip-hop is now at a post-Lil Wayne and post-Kanye point, you might see Wale as a contender for the spot as the next star simply because he can be described as falling somewhere between the two. Collaborating with a variety of artists — including K’naan, Bun B, and others on his debut album — Wale synthesizes diverse hip-hop influences while simultaneously gaining visibility, and the more he works with others, the more he begins to clearly define his style.
The man perhaps most responsible for Wale’s rise to fame is Mark Ronson, the producer/co-founder of Allido Records. Ronson discovered Wale in 2006, recruited him to his label, and had him appear on a remix of Lily Allen’s “Smile.” After releasing a few mix tapes and beginning to appear in the media, Wale was signed to the larger Interscope Records in 2008. Attention Deficit, his major-label debut album, was released in November of 2009.
At first listen, the album, filled with carefully constructed hooks and sophisticated production, seems far removed from the mixtapes that brought him national attention. The rhymes might not be as bold, confident, and biting as those of a young artist trying to make a name for himself, while the slick production creates a vocal complement entirely distinct from the raw strength of an underground mixtape. Closer listening, however, reveals evident continuity — in the delivery of lines, go-go influence and frequent references to D.C. — from the early work to the later. Wale didn’t entirely sell out when he moved to Interscope.
While the album’s lead single, “Chillin’,” featuring Lady Gaga, might be far from his best work, Wale puts out a strong debut effort. Since he already received a great deal of press and exposure from his mixtapes, his “debut” album has been held to somewhat high expectations. But Wale seems to think it’s his true debut; on “Mama Told Me” he raps: “Sorry hip-hop it took me so long to get on but so long that I’m on it, it’s on.”
Tracks like “TV in the Radio” and “Contemplate” showcase Wale’s ability to fit into a variety of environments. The former, produced by TV on the Radio member Dave Sitek, features Wale and K’naan trading verses over a brassy hook and a driving percussion section, and the latter finds Wale slipping verses in between a sample from Rihanna’s “Question Existing.”
Go-go music, an offshoot of funk unique to the D.C. area, makes an appearance on “Mirrors,” where Wale deftly plays with the idea of the mirror on the wall. “Pretty Girls” has performances from Gucci Mane and Weensey, both members of the go-go act Backyard Band. Characterized by a syncopated rhythm and the prominence of the conga, the style has achieved little success outside the capital area, but other hip-hop artists, including Run DMC and Jay-Z, have sampled go-go tracks.
Like the metro trains around the periphery of the capital area where Wale has spent a good deal of his life, the D.C. rapper has rapidly emerged from the underground in his quest for a wider audience. Rather than breaking onto the scene with an entirely unique sound, it seems Wale will continue to evolve and grow into a style all his own, which could easily carry him to the next level of stardom.