After all of the hoopla over his mixtapes and the repeated delays on a full-length debut, Wale‘s first record, Attention: Deficit, didn’t make the splash that the anticipation would suggest. Maybe it was just that the Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing had the ultimate hook of familiarity, with its sitcom references and samples, leaving the excellent (if less focused) LP reaching out in a handful of eccentric directions for something to latch onto. No matter the reason, Attention: Deficit just didn’t sell as well or reach as wide an audience as it should have. In the wake of that disappointment, the D.C. rapper signed with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group, a strange match considering Ross’s Teflon Don persona and Wale’s hipster appeal.
As such, the change in label is far more than a difference in logo on the back of the disc. Sure, Wale’s agile, pushing flow is intact, as are his penchant for surprising production and ability to combine personal material with over-the-top entertainment. He announces his return on “Don’t Hold Your Applause” with twirling piano, drum line snare rolls and an insistence that important changes have come. After explaining that everybody thinks he’s a different person after that first album, he kind of paradoxically notes that he’s “tired of makin’ money… on to makin’ history.” He’s got the depth to pull off that claim, but then he’s too good at the materialist braggadocio to toss that baby out with the bath water.
The ’70s feel to “Double M Genius” is vintage Wale, and so is his fixation on professional sports. “Ima let the chips fall/Niggas is Kemba Walker, tryna see me pitfall,” referencing the recently NBA-drafted baller’s ability to knock defenders off their feet. But then “Miami Nights” brings Wale to his new boss’s hometown, with an extra dose of the money-and-ladies talk. He weaves a pretty swift line about how nice his watch is, and later gets to the chorus of if he “can get my money right, I’m gonna OD.” While this would seem to be anything but forgetting about money, the big horns and chuckling intro are too good to notice the contradiction.
DJ Toomp’s swanky horn and string production on “Legendary” are the perfect backing for his emphatic motto of “Fuck fame, fuck money, and fuck everything anyone can take from ya.” He keeps insisting that he’s trying to be a legend, but he’s willing to mix them in with his futurist leanings here. The track hits another home run of a sports reference, claiming that his career “is anti-Mark McGwire, it takes patience for power,” a brilliant summary of the long time it’s taken to get here.
The conflict between bragging about his jewelery and wanting to inspire comes together perfectly on “Chain Music”, a song that sums up a conflict in much of the rap world. “Look, okay this chain music, fuck how them lames do it/You chained to it, your brain has been way too influenced,” he notes, but is sure to add that “Where I’m from there ain’t no love for no broke nigga.” The song insists on the vacuity of gold before a sample repeats that he’s got a massive chain. He wants to show you how silly it is to be focused on money, but he wants to make some money while doing it. It’s a crossed mindset but an honest one, and it doesn’t hurt that the ultra-bassy production is so full.
The smooth soul stylings of Miguel assist the synth-rippling “Lotus Flower Bomb”, a wily ballad asking for some attention from the ladies. The Kid Cudi-featuring “Focused” is similarly smooth and anthemic, but this time he’s not hoping for sex, he’s smirking and ordering. Guitars dominate “Sabotage”, radio-ready horns and a chorus from Lloyd coming together radio for pop radio. “White Linen (Coolin)” adds a dose of Ne-Yo, but keeps the smooth-singing chorus, suggesting that accessibility and sales numbers aren’t exactly anything to sneeze at.
The police siren sample turned SNES synth on “Slight Work” comes out of left field, and the track is the oddest of the bunch. Big Sean’s verse wryly gets across his self-esteem: “God damn it, I’m one hell of a guy,” he smirks. Ross himself turns up on the title track, its sonorous, rolling hills of grandiose bass bleakly backing Meek Mill and Ross’s sadly serious claim that drug dealing is one of the few options for kids from the projects. After their boilerplate verses, Wale returns to the fore, slinging hope instead of coke. There’s a slight chauvinist aside mixed into the insistence that family and love are more important than money (“Family is everything, money is less important/ Long as your mama love you, don’t ever love a woman/I got a lot of bitches, they got a lot of feelings”) and an admission that money is on his mind to a degree, though, again showing an honest, conflicted outlook rather than a pompous egoist one.
The production might not be as genre-hopping as on Attention: Deficit, but it certainly has the same strong personality at the center. Wale is a strong lyricist, one that conveys an inner vision far better than most in the game. Combined with a good ear for beats, this makes Ambition a strong sophomore release, one that shouldn’t disappoint old fans while drawing in new ones.
Essential Tracks:“Chain Music” and “Legendary”