Before Wale, D.C. officially didn’t have any famous rappers.
Sure, there had been a few ’hood favorites, a few underground talents, and a few major-label albums—most of which wound up in the bargain bin. Washington, according to prevailing music-industry logic, was a go-go town. Audiences interested in local music gravitated toward the percussive homegrown sound.
So the local hip-hop scene stayed small. The regional infrastructure needed to entice big record companies never developed. Some local rappers found success in Europe, but for the most part, D.C. hip-hop remained local.
In November 2009, Wale was supposed to change all that.
For several years before that, the rapper born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin had been the great hope of the city’s hip-hop scene. Born in the District and raised by his Nigerian parents in suburban Maryland, Wale was said to have it all: He had attracted a local following by nodding to the go-go tradition, but also demonstrated significant hipster appeal by incorporating buzzy electronica and indie rock into his beats. He had the sort of wordsmith’s flow that made him a plausible candidate for nationwide critical darling. Local boosters expected a commercial crossover to lead the city to mainstream relevance.
It was a lot to put on the then-25-year-old MC. Wale collapsed magnificently under the weight.
Released on Interscope Records, Wale’s big-budget debut album Attention Deficit was a schizophrenic mess. It tried to reach everyone from L.A. cokeheads to D.C. real heads, and missed on all fronts. The record flopped, D.C. didn’t become the next hip-hop mecca, and Wale definitely didn’t become an instant rap star.
Ambition, Wale’s sophomore album, is out this week. Released by the celebrated Miami rapper Rick Ross’ street-hot Maybach Music Group, the record seeks to realign Wale’s chances at stardom: Where Attention Deficit cast Wale as a pop rapper, Ross’ involvement now means he has a co-sign from a titan of lowbrow trunk-rattlers.
It’s a rare do-over for an artist at Wale’s level. These days, few rappers even get a chance to flub a major-label debut, let alone a follow-up.
And yet, to hear Wale tell it, the record is an unimpeachable classic. If you follow him on Twitter, he has already told you this, repeatedly, often using the hash-tag #classicalbum. To a degree, this is the lingua franca of modern hip-hop. Nobody admits to making just pretty good records anymore; every album is a classic in the mind of its creator, even while wider consensus over what deserves such status is becoming rarer in an era of atomized taste and Internet static.
It’s a particularly egregious claim coming from Wale, whose career arc has been so rocky. But it’s also telling. The man the Washington Post called D.C.’s “Great Rap Hope” has been consistently unable, through his music or through his gratingly unfiltered online persona, to present a coherent identity. In seeking to please all of those diverse constituencies, Wale has wound up with aimless records that please no one.
To Wale, “ambition” seems to be a synonym for “hard work”—a reflection, perhaps, of his increased commercial popularity in the last year despite his consistently inconsistent creative output. But there’s more to ambition than sheer perseverance, and on his new album, Wale rarely strives to exceed his previous accomplishments or correct his past errors.
Instead, he treads water, waiting for an audience to form in the puddles.
Wale could have been just another blip on the radar. His 2006 break-out single “Dig Dug (Shake It),” an homage to the go-go group Northeast Groovers, earned some spins on WKYS-FM, a major feat at the time. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Wale’s then-manager, DJ Alizay, was also a KYS disc jockey. But the song never resonated much further than that.
The following year, Wale was plucked from relative obscurity by hipsteratti DJ darlings Mark Ronson—the high-demand soul revivalist responsible for the sound of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black—and Nick Catchdubs. He eventually signed to Interscope Records through Ronson’s Allido imprint. These alliances eased Wale into the market through the then-burgeoning culture of MP3-driven music blogs, where the novelty of a placing a rapper’s voice over an indie dance hit like Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” was an easy sell.
Wale belongs to the first wave of major-label MCs who used blog buzz to circumvent the hometown hustle that rap careers have traditionally been built upon. Online, he had access to a worldwide audience in the infancy of his career. In the beginning, it worked. His Seinfeld-themed, occasionally smart Mixtape About Nothing was warmly received by fans and critics, establishing him as a rare favorite among commercially minded tastemakers and the notoriously fickle conscious-rap sect. Indie canon-builder Pitchfork called Mixtape About Nothing “expertly crafted, exuberantly witty, and endlessly surprising.” GQ called Wale “the greatest rapper since Jay-Z.”