The Empty Ambitions of Wale

Jonah Bromwich stays repping the DMV. Poor Wale. He has so many subjects to discuss. We knew this early on, and so did he. That’s why he made The Mixtape About Nothing, on which he briefly chewed...
By    November 2, 2011

Jonah Bromwich stays repping the DMV.

Poor Wale. He has so many subjects to discuss. We knew this early on, and so did he. That’s why he made The Mixtape About Nothing, on which he briefly chewed on a variety of topics to the rousing applause of the blogosphere. And with his new album Ambition, he thinks he’s looking at a repeat performance. In fact, the first track is called “Don’t Hold Your Applause.”

But there’s a major difference between being a mixtape rapper and belonging to a major label. Wale warned us way back on 100 Miles and Running that he was going to have to get on the radio, just to make himself heard. “If I don’t make that man there dance, that man there throw Wale on the shelf, and I lose,” he rapped on “DC Gorillaz.” But there was a second part to this contract. “When I’m blown, I can work proper.” The concept was clear. Wale was going to strive to get popular enough to make his own lane, so he could make the kind of music that he made on the aforementioned two mixtapes in a major label setting.

So why, when Wale appears to have the freedom he claimed to be searching for way back when, is he making these shallow, one-dimensional songs about this, that and the other thing? You might as well call Ambition, “The Album About Nothing, But For Real This Time You Guys.”

The deluxe version of Ambition has sixteen songs. They can be separated into categories relatively easily. There are six tracks that are boastful, well-rapped and empty, most of which are tangentially related to the concept of “ambition.” (“Don’t Hold Your Applause,” “Double M Genius,” “Legendary,” “Focused,” “Ambition,” “No Days Off”) There’s one club song. (“Miami Nights”) There are five kind-of sensitive songs for the ladies. (“Lotus Flower Bomb,” “Sabotage,” “White Linen,” “Illest Bitch,” “That Way”) And there are four songs that are so all over the place that it’s impossible to say what they’re about. (“Chain Music,” “Slight Work,” “DC” or “Nothing, Bait”)

The first category holds the best songs. The one-two punch of “Don’t Hold Your Applause” and “Double M Genius” is particularly impressive. But then we get to “Legendary” and realize that, despite an incredibly dynamic set of flows, intricate wordplay and rewind-worthy punchlines that Wale really has nothing to work with. No story and no persona. As horns unfurl on a beat we might as well have heard before (Maybach Music needs to start branching out) Wale says it all in the hook: “Fuck fame, fuck money…we just trying to be legendary.”

But the way you become legendary is not to sit around making songs about trying, just like the way you show ambition is not to talk about how ambitious you are. Players don’t just talk about playing, ballers don’t just talk about balling. It’s a weird for a guy with so many Nikes to so thoroughly ignore that company’s classic slogan.

The love songs present an entirely different problem. Wale used to have an intricate understanding of the dualities of rappers talking to women. There’s the lover-man and the pimp. But Mr. Folarin has blurred the line between the two personas so consistently, vacillating from one end of the spectrum to the other, that he’s just become creepy. When you have songs like “Illest Bitch”, a tribute to the ladies that Wale has the utmost respect for, on the same album as lines like “he can own that shorty, I’ma lease that” or “fuck rap, I get pussy off a haiku,” or “show me your peace sign, not with your hand girl, open your knees out,” or “told that bitch I love her for her mind well that’s quite true, bust a move, head game, love it boo,” or…you get it. Misogyny in rap is particular grating when sweet nothings are coming out of the other side of the same rapper’s mouth.

Ambition is, without a doubt, a major label album. It sounds polished, so polished in fact, that any genuine hint of a personality has been buffed out along with the dust. The surface gleams: Wale can rap his ass off and the beats are relatively good, if uniform. But there’s nothing beneath the surface. For all the subjects he appears to touch on, Ambition is remarkably singular. It’s the story of a man who doesn’t’ have anything left to say.

MP3: Wale-“Chain Music”

MP3: Wale ft. Rick Ross & Kevin Cossum-“Best Night Ever”

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