Just three years ago his path to stardom looked pretty well plotted out, but Wale’s odds of achieving the rap-legend status he openly covets look considerably longer now, a point that the promotional campaign for Ambition has more or less conceded in its protestant highlighting of just how hard the D.C. rapper is working these days, presumably to ensure that his sophomore album isn’t as roundly disappointing as Attention Deficit. He’s chronicled the making of the album in a vlog called “No Days Off,” appending his efforts with a dedicatory tweet in which he pledged to represent “anybody who put n extra hr in the gym, or whoever skipped a party to work.” So much for making it look it easy, but then Wale has always been a try-hard. The question confronting Ambition isn’t whether Wale’s got the drive, but whether all those late nights and early mornings will pay off now that he’s left Interscope, where his debut was preemptively deemed a failure and under-shipped, and taken up residency at Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group.
Ross’s eclectically curated posse isn’t an obvious fit for a rapper as strident as Wale, and though the label found him a strong, if solidly B-list, cast of collaborators, far too little about Ambition, particularly in terms of production, plays to its star’s strengths. The tempos aren’t fast enough to goad Wale into the type of quick-fire spitting at which he truly excels, nor are they melodic enough to compensate for the rapper’s inability to deliver a hook. Lloyd’s chorus on “Sabotage” is easily the most immediately engaging portion of the album (it’s actually quite a lot better than most of the material on his own overpraised King of Hearts), but the brunt of Ambition is as forgettable as big-budget rap gets.
Wale’s simply too good at rapping to let the whole thing go to pieces, and a number of his rhymes are as witty and well-written as those found on his excellent mixtapes. On “Double M Genius,” Wale declares himself a “modern day Goodfella” before rhyming “Ray Liotta” with “semicolon” and “penny-loafin’,” while Diplo’s beat on “Slight Work” sets him up for bar after bar of tongue-twisting wordplay. Those lively verses present Wale in his most endearing form, a rapper’s rapper who can’t resist gilding an already fine flow with extra puns or internal rhyme schemes. They also obviate Wale’s decision to tout his own work ethic all over Ambition: You don’t hear an MC go that hard on the mic without assuming he broke a sweat along the way.
However much of a perfectionist Wale might be in matters of technical competence, he doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with quality control when it comes to Ambition‘s less tangible dimensions. How nobody at Maybach managed to raise the obvious concern that an album containing tracks named “Legendary,” “Focused,” “Ambition,” and “No Days Off” might just be laying it on a bit too thick is beyond me, but it just might be the editorial oversight that costs Wale his career—again. The surplus of tracks concerned with just how badly Wale wants to succeed—including “Don’t Hold Your Applause,” which opens the album by starkly articulating Wale’s intense need for approval—only accentuate the wide gulf between the rapper Wale wants to be and the rapper he is. Where Jay-Z excels at bragging about his career and Drake makes whining about his fame seem insightful, when Wale starts sweating his legacy, he instantly stops being fun to listen to. For an album so obsessed with the amount of willpower that was poured into it, Ambition doesn’t even secure Wale the Most Improved Rapper award, let alone the Most Likely to Succeed.