What’s been remarkable, in the last few months, is that the haters are starting to get shouted down. The negative comments and Twitter exchanges have ceded ground to more positive ones. For all of his public turmoil—or maybe because of it—Wale is more popular today than he’s ever been. He’s become a significant presence on national urban radio for the first time in his career. His Twitter followers number well over a million. His most recent mixtapes—2010’s More About Nothing and this year’s The Eleven One Eleven Theory—got nowhere with critics, but were embraced by the public: In August, The Eleven One Eleven Theory crashed the music-hosting site Hulkshare not long after it was posted.
Late last year, Wale turned up alongside popular Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame on the still-inescapable hit “No Hands.” The strip-club anthem was an especially unexpected departure for a man known for unexpected departures. Even more unexpectedly, Wale sounded more comfortable on it than he had in a long while. It also caught him in a rare moment of humility—“I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped several bars into his verse. (Never mind that the comment was mostly likely directed toward a stripper whom he intended to shower with cash.)
Following the success of “No Hands,” Wale inked a deal with Maybach. The aggressive, street-oriented Ross might not have made for the most logical musical alliance—some of the hip-hop purists remaining in Wale’s fanbase were surely screaming sacrilege—but, professionally, it made sense. Like Wale, Ross presents a personality that defies likeability on paper. And Ross’ career, in its early stages, also seemed doomed, particularly following the 2008 revelation that he had worked as a corrections officer yet rapped about criminality. Nevertheless, Ross has become the most popular gangsta rapper of the moment, and he did it by merely rapping well and continuing to exist.
That Ross connection surely helped Wale get into a few car stereos this summer. On first listen, he was a quiet presence on the recent Maybach compilation Self Made, Vol. 1. He was missing from the album’s riotous street anthems “Tupac Back” and “I’ma Boss. (His own similarly charged “600 Benz” didn’t quite connect on the same level.) But Wale’s “That Way,” the last of seven (!) singles from the project, eventually became the rapper’s highest-charting track to date. It’s undeniably one of the year’s strongest rap ballads. Sure, attribute much of that greatness to buzzy producer Lex Luger’s warm Curtis Mayfield chop, and crooner Jeremih’s impassioned hook, but even that’s a big step for the rapper. Finally, Wale seems to have picked up some restraint. Where he used to leap into his genre experiments with a suffocating bound, he now approaches them with a little more tact. The successes of “That Way” and “No Hands” have as much to do with what Wale doesn’t do on them as what he does.
But to listen to Wale’s second album, it’s pretty clear he isn’t moving beyond that growth. And it’s easy to guess why. Hip-hop is afflicted by straw-man arguments: The myth of the anonymous hater has made rappers like Wale feel impervious to critique. Each “broke hater” that comes out of the woodwork to say something negative puts more distance between him and any perceived culpability for his past failures. “Critic apologies are rare but they are my trophies,” Wale recently Tweet-ranted. In other words, he expects his audience to apologize for his bad record.
Because Wale’s definitely not an artist who was blessed with an opportunity that most would only dream of, who sorta screwed it up, and who was then given an even less likely second chance. He’s a heaven-chosen born superstar, and anybody who says otherwise, even constructively, has affronted this divinity.
On Ambition, despite the Maybach alliance, Wale is still making many of the mistakes he won’t admit he made on its predecessor. Musically, the album starts off strong enough, with its first third handled largely by longtime collaborator Tone P., of Best Kept Secret, and fellow Washingtonian Mark Henry, who both hang loosely in the go-go pocket. But unlike “Pretty Girls” or the strangely absent recent single “Bait”—another local hit—these new fusions of hip-hop and go-go provide enough of a cranking backbone to satisfy local listeners without alienating outsiders or radio formats.
But almost as quickly as Wale establishes this sound, he lets it go, and the record melts into the type of nondescript hit-chasing goo that so many major-label rap albums splash around in. “Slight Work,” produced by Diplo, shamelessly tries to recreate the whistle and pop of the Philly hipster mainstay’s Chris Brown megahit, “Look at Me Now.” The Kid Cudi collaboration, “So Focused,” evokes the same trance mush that comprises every Kid Cudi record. “White Linen” offers a thin and fluttering ’80s sensibility—it’s practically chillwave.