DC rapper Wale’s career trajectory has been an interesting one, and one that seemed destined to find him damned to haunting rap’s graveyard for all time like so many other promising newcomers. You know the story, as predictable and excruciating as a Sandra Bullock rom-com: hungry newcomer turns heads with excellent mixtape (in this case, 2008’s Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing), gets a bunch of people excited, hits listening public with debut record (in this case, 2009’s Attention Deficit), elicits collective shrug from the people, proceeds to be forgotten.
Except, in the intervening two years, Rick Ross has thrown a wrench into Wale’s etched-in-stone plot; sometime in the interim, the Miami rap kingpin decided that Wale’s nimble wordplay and rhythmic, unpredictable flow would be of considerable interest to his Maybach Music collective, and Wale decided that, sure, he’d like to make a whole bunch of money, thanks. Hence, we get Wale’s second stab at major-label relevancy, Ambition; while it may take a minute to adjust to Wale’s new focus on money and hoes, the most shocking thing about Wale making this sort of music might be just how good he is at it.
Granted, it’s a dodgy proposition. Those tipped off to Wale’s charms from the beginning are likely to recoil from this drastic 180. But open-minded listeners will likely find a lot to like with Ambition – and, let’s face it, finding the elusive middle ground between uplifting, socially relevant rhymes and booty raps is the internal struggle we hip-hop fans live with everyday. The soul longs for edification; the hips long to gyrate, preferably to something unsubstantial and utterly superficial. Wale alludes to this on “Chain Music”, spiritually echoing Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, trying to reconcile his intensely intellectual side with his latent materialistic streak (and, by extension, desire for disposable one-nighters). The struggle, largely, finds Wale giving over to his baser instincts, but never tempering his witty streak – the man pretty much steamrolls every beat he tackles solo, the album only faltering when other emcees interrupt his flow.
This can be easy to overlook, as glossy as the record sounds; full of minor-key piano loops and triumphant horn riffs, Ambition is thoroughly produced, and while few beats stand out – although the glitzy city-skyline-at-midnight “Miami Nights” with its layered horn section comes close – nothing falls flat on the production tip. At the very least, Ambition sounds as big as its title. And Wale rides each beat expertly, stuffing each bar with words tumbling over themselves, possessing an invigorating, percussive flow that sounds like an instrument in itself. Wale raps so eagerly, so hungrily, that it’s easy to forget that he’s rarely saying anything of substance. He’s got his moments, though; on “Sabotage”, Wale’s recollection of a dysfunctional relationship spills so energetically over that terrific funk-guitar and horn-laced beat that the emcee becomes audibly hoarse near song’s end, plowing right through nondescript hook-man Lloyd’s big, Jacko-aping refrain. And then there’s “Illest Bitch”, which transcends its dubious title by functioning as a remarkably candid, heartfelt tribute to the strong women in Wale’s life. “No Days Off” is nice, too, although we should probably go ahead and declare a moratorium on using “Ray Charles” as a synonym for “blind”; not because it’s offensive, but because it puts Wale in the same lyrical league as Lil’ Wayne, and come on dude, you’re better than that.
And at the end of the day, yeah, you long for more of that from Wale. When the introspective, socially-relevant Wale pops up on Ambition, it’s captivating; perhaps when Rick Ross is done renting out his artistic legitimacy, we’ll see that Wale stick around for an LP’s length. Until then, though, Ambition will do nicely; what Wale has sacrificed in depth, he’s made up for by bringing his A-game lyrically, and settling for nothing less than the most epic on the production side of things. If Wale’s a booty rapper now, he’s the smartest booty rapper in the game.
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