Of all the members of hip-hop’s 2007 free agent class, Wale has had perhaps the least predictable, most ambiguous career trajectory. Starting out as a frequent collaborator of Best Kept Secret’s and champion of all things DMV (as in D.C./Maryland/Virgina), Wale first caught everyone’s attention through a verse on the Roots’ Rising Down and Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing, both of which found Wale in a pretty social-oriented headspace. The latter was particularly notable for its heavy reliance on go-go sampling production, which was in line with Wale’s reverence for his roots in D.C. But then there was also “Nike Boots”, a single which forewarned us about his obsession with sneaker and sports references, the revelation that Wale was linked to Mark Ronson through features with Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, and then finally his debut album for Interscope, Attention Deficit. While the album contained plenty of the things that made Mixtape About Nothing catch the ears of many, it also contained plenty of confusing major label gaffs like aligning Wale with Gucci Mane, or Lady Gaga, or Pharrell in coast mode. It made for an album with as many low points as highs, but more importantly it made for an artist whose predictability was almost non-existent. For some that’s a good thing, but for Wale it led to a mass of listeners who became rather ambivalent because it seemed he cared mostly about shoes and sports.
Cut to two years and one (surprisingly successful) collaboration with Waka Flocka Flame, and again we find Wale in a strange situation, making strange decisions that aren’t so much disappointing as they are simply numbing. Having been cut loose from Interscope, Ambition is being released through Rick Ross’ Maybach Music imprint. The album opens with his signature nameless female cooing the name of the label, and its 15 tracks consists almost entirely of the slumping 808 music upon which Ross has made his name. In this regard Ambition seems to be extremely reticent about providing any of the surprises Attention Deficit or Wale’s earlier mixtape work displayed. In place of Wale’s experimental edge is polish, heaps of it. Every track on this album works by default. The beats are EQ’d to perfection, and Wale’s flow is every bit as well intentioned and flirtatious with greatness as it’s always been. Whether it’s a thunderous bachelor anthem like “Legendary” or simpin’ theme like “Sabotage”, Wale and his squadron of mostly no name producers pull out all the tricks to make their collaborations highly listenable. Unfortunately, in the process of making such an easy and comfortable album, they’ve somehow found a way to also succeed in making one of the year’s most bland, uncompromisingly boring hip-hop efforts.
There are a few notable tracks here. “Legendary”, despite its questionable chorus coming from a man as industry-affiliated as Wale, is undeniably epic thanks to DJ Toomp and the Twitterverse has already become fond of it. “Slight Work”, Ambition‘s frontrunner for most divisive track, is built on a huge Diplo beat centered around a bouncing police siren sample and a pretty confounding appearance from Big Sean (for whom the song appears made for). The song doesn’t make much sense, but it is a lot of fun to listen to and it could have a chance on the club scene. Meanwhile, Self Made Vol. 1‘s “That Way” reappears here and feels just as surprisingly good as it did then, Jeremih and all, while “Chain Music” and “Ambition” tap into the Maybach template more forcibly with some black man on the rise brag raps that seem to suit Wale best, fitting in with his jockish personal identity. But even these songs aren’t ever amazing in any sense of the word, they’re just both a fun listen.
Otherwise, Ambition pretty much comes and goes, delivering some tracks for the women, a track for his hometown and plenty of brags one can either believe or not. It’s a strangely named album considering it’s much less ambitious than previous Wale projects, most immediately, of course, being his last album. This is an easier straight-through listen, but there’s no “Shades”, “Beautiful Bliss” or “Contemplate” where Wale takes a moment to think about the problems of people other than himself. In fact, when guests are brought along Wale mostly cedes the center ring to them, whether it’s crooners like Miguel and Lloyd, his boss, Rick Ross or fellow risers Big Sean and Kid CuDi. There’s also no risks taken here compared to his debut. Instead, Ambition gives us pretty much the same song over and over again with just a few variations on the template, and feels like the hip-hop equivalent of listening to some pop rock band’s album who you’d never have guessed was being bet on by a major unless you were told. The music’s efficient and there’s literally nothing to get annoyed or disgusted by (unless “Illest Bitch” weirds you out for his calling his sister in a bitch in a positive context) and so Ambition leaves listeners to answer the simple question of whether they want an exceptionally unchallenging album to listen to for an hour or not. I’ll just take the highlights.