On 2009's Attention Deficit, Wale tried to channel the popularity of his concept mixtapes into critical and commercial success. He failed. With neither goal accomplished, and Interscope focused on other efforts, it seemed Wale might fade into musical obscurity. Maybach honcho Rick Ross came to the rescue, with a career intervention/makeover that saved Wale from artistic obliteration. Thus he shuffles his persona again on Ambition, his sophomore record and the first with the Maybach crew pulling the strings. "Maybach" is the first thing you hear, and again, frequently, reminding us who is in charge here. But Wale remains, silently and murkily himself, despite his surroundings.
Ross and his misogynistic tendencies, the live fast and die faster, "strip-club rap," all overshadow Wale's DC go-go origins and his purported social consciousness. Introspection is sandwiched in between "Miami Nights" and lasers, and we're left with a highfalutin, low-brow rap record hell bent on sales and club play. Mission accomplished? Whose mission?
Wale is still (and has always been) an immense lyrical talent, and it feels good to occasionally hear his wit pasted on to solid beats. "Miami Nights" has a hook rooted in Wale's flow, and accomplishes a level of appeal "World Tour" didn't quite establish or earn. "Focused," a scorching collection of synths with Kid Cudi providing back-up, also stands out. But it's all very pop. Wale's initial promises of responsible, thought-provoking rap are kind of lost in the vortex of Rick Ross style drug-abuse and lifestyle porn. The insecurities of tracks like "DC Or Nothing," "Legendary," and "No Days" are hidden behind a familiar facade of safe beat motifs. Repeat the title, aggressive bass, loud loud loud, etc. It's fun but sometimes feels like a new topping on the same old pizza.
Read between the lines, and you'll see Wale is still himself. Perhaps the combination of playful and contemplative was a good choice for sales. But look for the details; title track "Ambition" offers an explanation, and it's almost lost in the guest verses. Drugs, rough upbringings and the like drove Meek Mills and Ross to follow their respective paths. Wale is talking about a different kind of ambition, just listen to his verse. Just listen to the chorus. "They gonna love me for my ambition/Easy to dream a dream/Though it's harder to live it", and it's not just an empty refrain. It's the story of his career. Riding the pop train to stay alive, but struggling to maintain his identity as an appeal to a different kind of rap fan.