The music industry isn’t known for its sustained pragmatism, but it’s still pretty crazy thinking about the rollercoaster of mistakes, promises, hype, backlash and rebirths of D.C.’s Wale. Tagged for brilliance early on with the wunderkind-heights of The Mixtape About Nothing, then faltering with the commercial bomb of Attention Deficit, and somehow escaping the stigma of a failure-to-launch with a thorough rebranding via Maybach Music Group—his second full-length Ambition actually arrives with some murmurs of anticipation. Wale is no longer conscious or overly careful; he has a new boss in Rick Ross, who’s designated him as a snarling pimp-rap hardhead, to the point of landing a verse on 2010’s de facto smut-club anthem “No Hands.” Its title, its back-story, and its label sets Ambition up to be something of a statement; unfortunately Wale would rather play it safe, picking middling beats and retracting his formerly provocative language. It’s a record that lives in a sleepy autopilot and winds up frustratingly boring because of it.
Wale at least seems like he’s happy with his new home. The first sound you hear on Ambition is an extended, telltale “M-M-M-M-Maybach Music.” He’s rapping about models, bottles, cars and Miami nights, usually coated in a lavish, cinematic soul—which might as well be the calling card for anyone involved in Ross’ insular posse. For Wale, a performer whose former best song was a brilliant, complex rumination on the cultural penetration of the N-word, this obviously might be a little troubling. Hearing him shout about his apparent suitors who only stick around for his necklace collection (on a track specific enough to be called “Chain Music”) is almost uncanny. It’s unfair to say Wale is contradicting his ideals, but he’s certainly hanging out with a new crowd.
Not that I’m above that sort of thing, but Wale isn’t really the right guy to be Maybachified. Rick Ross has the earworm hook on the aforementioned “Chain Music” with a booming “CHAIN SO BIG CAN’T POP MY COLLAR.” His deep, creamy voice, his ridiculous grandiloquence, his goliath, start-stopping cadence—these are the things that make that Maybach brand work, not Wale’s squiggly rasp. He might have the content down but he certainly doesn’t have the character, often looking pretty awkward in his brazen power-brags. After a few boilerplate verses at the end of the first track “Don’t Hold Your Applause,” prerecorded cheers actually start to cascade down; at least he’s buying into his own mystique.
There’s a lot of mediocrity on Ambition, the C-level, synth-driven, chart-bait “Focused,” the watered-down, puffy-eyed ballads “Sabotage,” “White Linen,” and “Lotus Flower Bomb”—Wale has a profoundly difficult time reminding you why people started talking about him in the first place. Even on Diplo’s sparse, otherworldly bounce “Slight Work,” he just can’t find his groove. There are shards of his distinguishing talents (“any broad I lay her like I’m dressing for the fall!”) but not enough to sound like anything more than a workman with a gilded budget and a roster to draw from.
It’s just not very fun. Wale’s conversion to Ross’ braggy rap-excess didn’t seem like a great idea in theory, and stretched out to an hour his updated, devolved craft starts to wear thin very, very quickly. He doesn’t have the same fire, conviction, or really any feasible statement of purpose. Competently dull in the worst ways possible and even further removed from the things that made him special in the first place, Wale may have found a permanent home within the Maybach family, but his top-tier dreams (or ambitions if you must) seem to be long gone.