Music Album Review: Ambition by Wale

In early 2009, it seemed like Wale was destined for hip-hop superstardom. He was on the coveted cover of XXL Magazine (along with B.o.B., Asher Roth, and Charles Hamilton) as one of 2009’s Ten Freshmen. He had three critically acclaimed mixtapes under his belt and was signed by Interscope Records. His song, ‘W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.’ was a smash hit. He had the wordplay to satisfy hip-hop purists, as well as the swagger and sound of a mainstream rapper. His debut album ‘Attention Deficit’ dropped in November 2009 to positive reviews and a radio-ready single in ‘Chillin’ (featuring Lady Gaga).

Despite everything seemingly being lined up for success, ‘Attention Deficit’ was a commercial failure (selling fewer than 30,000 units its first week). It didn’t even crack the top 20 in the US Billboard 200, peaking at 21. Chillin, the song that should have caused Wale to blow up (he got Lady Gaga to sing the chorus, for heaven’s sake), barely charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

So what did Wale do? He responded by releasing another outstanding mixtape, 2010’s ‘More About Nothing,’ leading his fans to wonder whether or not he’d be destined to be just another mixtape rapper.

He was featured on one of the year’s hottest tracks, Waka Flocka Flame’s ‘No Hands’, even though the song’s sound was completely inconsistent with that of Wale’s discography up to that point. He signed with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in February 2011, a decision that raised more than a few eyebrows because of the image change that it represented. He was accused of selling out, but at least under Ross’ guidance it was likely Wale would be able to come out with a major label-backed second album—something that seemed unlikely immediately after ‘Attention Deficit.’

Eventually, Wale’s sophomore album, ‘Ambition’ was given a release date: November 1, 2011. Although some feared that Ross’ influence would have a negative impact on Wale on account of their different musical backgrounds, rest assured, there aren’t any songs that sound like ‘Blowin’ Money Fast’ or ‘MC Hammer.’

What resulted from the Wale-Ross marriage was a good album with a diverse sound. ‘Ambition’ seems like the natural progression in Wale’s career, which is extraordinary considering that his career trajectory has been anything but normal. Songs like ‘Double M Genius,’ ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Miami Nights’ are classic Wale: upbeat, positive, and flat out enjoyable. The horns are infectious, but more importantly, Wale just sounds comfortable on these tracks. They’re just dripping with swagger, something that neither feels disingenuous nor excessive.

Wale’s word cadence complements the instrumentals perfectly, as his flow attacks the beat as if they were one and the same. ‘Double M Genius’ and ‘Sabotage’ will be the favorite songs of many long-time Wale fans, with the latter track being the best song on the album.

Although upbeat anthems are what Wale is renowned for, his versatility and talent can be found on the mellower tracks. ‘Lotus Flower Bomb’ (featuring Miguel) and ‘That Way’ (featuring Jeremih and Rick Ross) are absolute pleasures to listen to, with smooth instrumentals and great choruses. People already knew that Miguel could sing (see last year’s ‘All I Want Is You’), but Jeremih’s presence was a complete surprise. For those who only associate him with ‘Birthday Sex’ or ‘Down on Me’, they’ll find that Jeremih’s perfectly capable of delivering a soulful hook. Although the choruses carry these songs, Wale holds his own in delivering ballads: “but a woman worth some anger is definitely worth some effort.”

‘Ambition’, the title track, sounds awfully similar to Lil Wayne’s ‘She Will’ and T.I.’s ‘Poppin’ Bottles.’ Before signing to Ross, it would be difficult to imagine Wale on a T-Minus beat, but his success on the track is testament to his progression as an artist. He’s able to sound as natural on this song as he did on the aforementioned two tracks, something that wouldn’t have seemed possible a year ago. Ross and Meek Mill are featured in the song, with Mill in particular delivering an outstanding verse that narrates his ‘rags-to-riches’ story. This track definitely has the potential to blow up on the radio.

Wale attempts to capture some of the Diplo-produced magic on ‘Slight Work’ (featuring Big Sean) in the same vein as Chris Brown’s ‘Look At Me Now.’ Although Wale can obviously rap circles around Brown, ‘Slight Work’ isn’t nearly as strong of a single. A lot of the appeal of ‘Look At Me Now’ was the song-stealing verse from Busta Rhymes (people tended to overlook Brown’s rapping at the beginning of the song). ‘Slight Work’ lacks that necessary verse, probably because Big Sean isn’t nearly as strong of a rapper as Rhymes. In addition, the production of ‘Look At Me Now’ might have been the instrumental of 2011, whereas ‘Slight Work’ appears like a poor ‘Pon De Floor’ remake.

As a whole, ‘Ambition’ is solid follow-up to ‘Attention Deficit.’ The two are definitely different, as Ross’ guidance can be found on ‘Ambition’ in songs like ‘Chain Music,’ ‘No Days Off’ and the title track. Yet there’s clearly enough here to placate long-time Wale fans as well as those who only started listening to him because of Ross.