The only thing Wale and his production team seem crystal clear about is what Ambition is not: a typical Maybach Music Group record. Apart from the label’s trademark vocal drop and cameos from Ross and Maybach crony Meek Mill on the title track, there’s very little here that conjures up the energy or menace of Ross’ recent string of celebrity-obsessed goth-crunk hits. Wale seems to be asserting his musical identity in drawing this line, nodding to the old fans who were afraid that the MMG alliance would immediately spell “sell-out.” It would’ve been a nice gesture, had it come from a rapper who has actually established a musical identity of his own.
Unlike a rapper like Wiz Khalifa, Wale’s personality and songwriting do very little to anchor this sonic indecision. He’s not a strong chorus writer, mostly leaving that duty to guest vocalists like Miguel or to go-to hook man Tre, of D.C.’s UCB. When he doesn’t have anyone to assist, Wale flails awkwardly. His raps are sometimes tightly penned, but to no end. “Legendary” and “Chain Music” represent some of Wale’s lyrically-lyrical showboat moments, but they mostly involve sputtering and dated pop-culture punchlines about Stevie Wonder (he’s blind!), Sandra Bullock, and Ray Charles (also blind!) delivered in wordy strings. Conceptually, “DC Or Nothing” is one of the more focused songs, and the only to engage the city at length. It’s an artfully executed but ultimately dismal picture of the District—murder, AIDS, gentrification—made in the name of a pride he can’t quite articulate.
There’s plenty of other stuff to like on the album, of course. Wale’s summer hit “That Way” makes a welcome enough return—it was previously released on the Maybach compilation and the Eleven One Eleven mixtape—as the new record’s final song. He also extends the track’s romantic motif to “Lotus Flower Bomb” and the more aggressive “Illest Bitch.” His continued and reasonably effective mining of this terrain—the oft-dreaded for da ladies rap— might account for a large part of his recent success. He writes women well, and seems to write to women well.
But still, there are issues. Wale’s romantic writing can be troublesome, or at least goofy, if you’re not the object of his affection. He’s the inexplicably successful pickup artist whose pandering sweet talk means everything to its intended target while everyone else in the room gags on its sleaziness. It doesn’t help that he delivers these paeans alongside the more blatantly off-putting sex raps that populate other parts of the album. You’d think any progress he’s made as an LL Cool J-esque lady’s man would be negated once he says something like, “She so stingy with vagina/but why it open when a nigga get to shinin’?”
Even when it comes to the ladies, Wale is still several rappers, not one.
Ambition’s most frequent motif, in the end, is also its most grating: Wale’s greatness.
On the album, Wale declares himself a “genius” several times, at one point describing himself as a mix of Che Guevara and Malcolm X. Fine, so complaining about arrogance on a rap album is like calling a blues record sad, but Wale belongs to rap’s insufferable new school of hyper-arrogance. Instead of rap’s typical boasts of dopeness, we get sweeping and grandiose gestures of importance. They’re not just the best rappers; in 2011, everyone sees themselves as a legend or an icon. Late-period Jay-Z was probably the first rapper to inflate braggadocio to this level, but he has a catalog and a resume to justify it.
Wale, not so much. He’s still an underdog, at least until next week’s Soundscans come out, and his on-record self-assuredness is undermined by his frequent real-world need to lash out at his detractors. More than that, it’s striking how rarely he employs this arrogance in the service of creativity or cleverness. Instead, he takes a tell-not-show approach to greatness. The same goes for his idea of ambition, which seems to involve little more than quite bluntly reminding everyone in earshot of his ambitiousness. And it seems like people are beginning to believe him.
“Success is just a process,” Wale posits on “Legendary.” If that’s true, then his recent surge of popularity can be attributed to nothing more than a formula. He’s gone through the motions, gotten the right co-signatures, landed the right guest appearances, made himself scarce when necessary, and floated his name along for precisely the right amount of time it takes to matter.
But there’s a difference between being hot and being a legend. It’ll be a little more complicated for Wale to resonate beyond present-day relevance. If he ever intends to make a classic on the level that he believes Ambition to be, then he first needs to realize he doesn’t get to make that call. That decision’s best left to the listeners.