The King of the City: The Best Rapper in 13 Hip-Hop Meccas

DMV


King: Wale
Crowning Achievement
: The Gifted debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Predecessor: Bossman
Royal Court: Los, Fat Trel, DDm, StarrZ

The term DMV came into popular use a few years ago in the mid-Atlantic region to encompass the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. But as far as hip-hop is concerned, it’s a tale of two cities, Washington and Baltimore, that have long bristled at the term. While “The Bay Area” and “The Twin Cities” have inextricably intertwined musical identities, the cities that birthed D.C. Go-Go and Baltimore club music have vastly different cultures with distinct hip-hop scenes sitting just 40 miles apart on I-95.

After years of rappers from the area getting deals that never materialized into national stardom—such as Bossman from Baltimore, the region’s previous biggest prospect—Wale has emerged as a bona fide radio fixture. And it wasn’t that long ago that Mr. Folarin was on the bubble himself, with a major label debut, 2009’s Attention Deficit, that went triple balsa wood even with Lady Gaga on the lead single. Four years later, though, Wale is second in sales only to his boss Rick Ross on the star-studded Maybach Music Group roster, and his third album, The Gifted, topped the Billboard 200 upon release in June. Along the way, he outlasted most of his XXL Freshman contemporaries, scored a management deal with Roc Nation, and linked up with Rihanna for a superstar-powered remix of this year’s smash “Bad.”

Wale is still a divisive figure, in and outside the DMV, as much for his rancorous personality as for his penchant for R&B hooks and poetry-slam flows. But he’s increasingly earned respect for songs like “LoveHate Thing,” which wraps all of those contradictory impulses into a catchy, well-written radio hit that eloquently addresses the success and envy he's experienced over years of dominating the competitive D.C. scene. And he’s done it all while remaining true to the hometown Go-Go sound, getting stars like Nicki Minaj and Gucci Mane to rap over EU and Backyard Band samples.

Wale’s perseverance has been singular and unlikely enough that it’s hard to imagine him kicking the door open for more DMV rappers to just waltz through. Nevertheless, there are two cities’ worth of hungry, talented rappers on his heels. The foremost runner-up is Los, the Baltimore-bred Bad Boy signee whose latest mixtape, Becoming King, went DatPiff platinum. Beyond him, Fat Trel is depicting a grittier side of D.C. than Wale. Baltimore’s hopefuls consist of StarrZ, whose single “Dope Trilla” is burning up local airwaves, and the enormously talented DDm, the rare openly gay MC who’s feared as a battle rapper and embraced as a collaborator by street-rap peers throughout his city. —Al Shipley

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