I’d like to start off this review by discussing the word “classic” as it relates to hip-hop albums. The word is thrown around way too loosely these days. You don’t create a classic album. You create an album. Classics just happen. All an artist can do is set out to make the best music he or she possibly can. The fans determine what will be remembered for years to come. So does time. A classic either does something that’s never been done before or does something better than anything which preceded it. A classic sets the trend for future albums.
When we talk about classic hip-hop albums, we talk about illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Ready to Die, The Chronic, Paid in Full. These are the albums that define a genre and an era. They’re timeless. If you were writing a thesis about hip-hop, these are the projects you would reference. Ready to Die changed the subject matter of future rap albums. illmatic single-handedly brought hip-hop back to New York. Classic albums are moments that last forever. As an artist, you create the music, release it, and then let nature take it’s course. Never in hip-hop has an artist announced an album will be classic before releasing it and then actually released a classic. It sets up an almost impossible to reach plateau.
Wale decided to ignore that philosophy. He took every opportunity he possibly could to place Ambition in the same conversation as those other albums before a single song had been heard. Confidence or naivety? Could he possibly create a body of work equal to some of greatest of all-time despite only having one mediocre solo project on his resume? Would signing to the “label of the moment” Maybach Music Group water down his sound?
It’s 11.1.11. It’s time to form our opinion. Did Wale accomplish what no other hip-hop artist has successfully done and predict a classic? Or is he more Rex Ryan, predicting – but failing to deliver on – a championship?
Let’s start off with the most obvious statement in hip-hop history: Wale did not create an album better than Reasonable Doubt, as he had challenged himself to do. And it wasn’t close. Ambition won’t be mentioned alongside the albums that have defined hip-hop. It’s far from the classic that he promised us.
But he did manage to create a very good – but still short of great – album.
Ambition is leaps and bounds above his disappointing debut Attention Deficit. On AD, he sounded like he was trying to create what was expected of him. Perhaps there were too many label hands involved in trying to craft the sound that they thought should be Wale. He was trying to be too many things and, in the process, lost what people actually liked about him – himself. On Ambition, this is Wale. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe not the Wale you admired after 100 Miles & Running, but this is who Wale has become. His radio attempts fit in very well with the rest of the album. Nothing sounds forced, though perhaps a bit repetitive. It was cohesive. The beats were very good overall, with few exceptions. The hooks helped add to the song and make it better, give it character, the way a hook should (J. Cole should take note).
Ambition is better than Cole World – though my guess is that pure hip-hop fans will prefer Cole’s non-radio effort more. Matter of fact, Ambition is better than most albums that have been released this year. The album starts off as almost a dedication to Wale’s core fans. His first four songs have no features, Wale performing each hook, and a lot of rapping. My wife, and probably the entire female segment of his fan base, might skip past the first few songs to get to the more radio friendly portion of the album, but his “Mixtape About Nothing” fans should be satisfied.
The sequencing of the album is very intriguing to me. Starting the album with a string of songs like this is an interesting approach, to say the least. I often find myself either skipping Don’t Hold Your Applause, Double M Genius and Legendary to listen to the rest of the album, or vice versa – ONLY listening to those and a select few others. He really displays his lyrical talent on the opening tracks, especially on Legendary. His lyrics can sometimes fly over your head if you aren’t paying attention. The key for a lyrical artist is to deliver records in a way where even if you aren’t catching the meaning behind each line, the song is enjoyable to listen to. He’s done that here. There are lots of double entendres. The depth of his lyrics gives the album a lot of replay value, though the subject matter is a bit less diverse than his core fans would’ve hoped.
A lot of people seem to like Legendary, and in a way, I do too. But it’s hard for me to take Wale seriously when his hook says “fuck money, fuck fame”, when all I hear him do all day on twitter is brag about those exact things. Some random person with 29 followers will tweet “@wale if your album flops that’s a huge fail for you” and Wale will respond with something along the lines of “BITCH I MADE $100,000 LAST WEEK! IM CHILLIN”. So four minutes of him telling me how money and fame don’t mean anything to him hits me the same as Jay-Z telling me he buys gas for his Maybach with food stamps.
Matter of fact, I think I would’ve enjoyed this album exponentially more if I didn’t follow Wale on twitter. If I didn’t hear him promise it was a classic and say he was aiming for Reasonable Doubt. But I did. As objective as I try to be, it’s impossible to completely block out your sub conscience.
Lotus Flower Bomb – which I didn’t hear until I heard the album – is an awesome single. Miguel sings the shit out of the chorus and Wale keeps his lyrics relatable an friendly, without being cheesy. It had enough of a concept to stop from being too “been there, done that”. Production was top notch. Just an all around great choice for a lead single. This was the beginning of Wale telling us how much he admires and appreciates “bitches”.
Chain Music is my favorite song on the album and I hope it becomes a single. One thing that makes it great is that it’s different from the rest of the album (more on that later). What’s also great is that though it sounds like an ignorant money record, it’s actually a concept song with an good message. It’s a mock of the materialism – which again, would be great with the exception that Wale forever talks about his money and accomplishments. *focus Wil…..be objective….ignore tweets*. Okay, I’m back. He basically says that talking about money has gotten people to listen to his lyrics. It’s a bit ironic, but it’s a great song. Beat is outstanding, bass drives home. Sounds amazing through the big Event speakers in the Culture VI studio and in the Culturemobile. And this is the type of Rick Ross feature I can enjoy. One where he’s not actually rapping.
Then it transitions into Focused. What can I say? I’m happy that Wale and Cudi made up. I really am. I don’t know why they were mad at each other, but I’m glad they’re buddies again. I can only wish to God that the reconciliation would’ve happened after Ambition’s song submission cutoff date had passed. My best guess is that he wanted to do a song with Cudi as some sort of show of solidarity and then left it on the final tracklist because he didn’t want to offend him and ruin their newly renewed friendship again. Cus, except for the gimmick of two frenemies getting on a song together, the song is completely unnecessary.
Then comes “Lotus Flower Pt. II” and “Lotus Flower Pt. III”, aka Sabotage and White Linen. As with LF, they’re both pro-woman songs featuring a prominent singer and Wale rapping nice lyrics that girls can pretty much understand on their first listen. Sabotage is a bit more uptempo and White Linen has an 80s style beat. They aren’t bad songs at all. They’re actually pretty good. They’re just very similar. These two songs, I believe, are why people are going to either like or dislike Ambition. Fans who loved the album’s first four songs might be turned off, especially because these are back to back – which gets back to the sequencing. On the other hand, part of Wale’s promotional strategy included visiting a college, tweeting he was outside and watching the hundreds or thousands of students come flooding outside to greet him. That niche – the college girls specifically – will probably love the album for these few songs, even if they don’t understand the lyrics on the first few. Personally, I prefer Wale on these records more than I do on songs like Legendary. I’m probably one of the few old school hip-hop purists who feels that way. There is a laundry list of other artists I’d prefer to listen to if I’m just listening for lyrics, such as Lupe. But there aren’t many other radio rappers that I’d rather hear than Wale, because at least he has some substance and lyricism. He raps circles around the Ross’ and Wackas of the world.
And that’s sorta how I think of Wale. Not quite revolutionary enough to be Common, but not fun and frivolous enough to be Ross. He does a respectable job of toeing the line and being just believable enough in each role to be enjoyable, but not authentic enough to have his own lane. As I mentioned before, he’s also quite contradictory. I almost feel like there’s two Wales: the one that he wants to be and the one that exists. He works hard to exude a charm, humbleness and confidence and come off as a genuinely nice guy who cares about his fans. And I believe that is part of his real persona. It’s the insecurity and arrogance that renders him extremely polarizing. He’s exactly the type of person who you could imagine googling his name, finding negative comments about himself on a rap forum, and registering just to rebut and argue. He seems to feel the need to dispel every negative feeling towards him. He’s seemingly bipolar. I can relate because the same has been said about me by more than one person. This is probably why I find myself in disagreements with people like Wale and Joe Buddens, because we share many of the same character flaws. I acknowledge mine and work feverishly every day to improve. I’m not sure either of them ever have. But that, too, is a different discussion.
I really wish Bad Girls Club feat. J. Cole would’ve been on the album. That and Biait. Since the idea was to flood the album with potential radio singles, this would’ve been a welcome change of tempo and departure from the “I’ll rap 3 verses and (insert famous singer) will do the hook over an R&B/hip-pop sounding beat” formula that he found himself relying on for much of the LP. I’m sure he had his reasons, but I would’ve preferred either of those over Lotus I and Lotus II.
I should hate Slight Work. It has everything that I could ever hate on a song. Police sirens blaring for 4 minutes. Big Sean rapping. Not quite a Swizz Beatz beat – but a beat that sounds like a Swizz Beatz beat, which is even worse (who would you rather be: the guy who drives a Pinto or the guy who wishes he did?) – though at least Swizz isn’t yelling on it). And Wale repeating the same word over and over and over and over and over again. Yet, because of the mellowness of three of the four tracks preceding it, I find myself excited when this song comes on. I actually liked Big Sean’s verse on here. I’m curious to see how the song is received. Like Wale, I’m guessing it will probably be very polarizing. People will most likely love it or hate it.
Ambition is the hands-down best song on the album. The beat is tremendous, the verses and hook are all on topic, and even Meek Mill didn’t ruin it. Believe it or not, Rick Ross actually spits a few bars on this one. It was the perfect theme song for the album. All three verses were great, but Wale does what an artist is supposed to do on his own song – he stole the show from his featured guests. He went perfectly with the slight beat change up. The song packed tons of emotion. It was MMG at their absolute best. I wish Rick Ross would rap like this on his solo project.
Illest Bitch Alive is a well executed song covering an all-too-familiar concept. Trying to be clever, he calls the woman “bitch”, but is complimenting her. It’s supposed to be ironic. Problem is, it’s been done before. Overall, the song is cool. It reminds me of Common’s skit after The 6th Sense on Like Water for Chocolate where the woman is thanking him for all his positive lyrics for women and he interrupts the conversation mid-sentence (“I was raised by my mother. I have a daughter…”) to smack the girl that he’s pimpin’ out. That was some fifteen years ago. It’ll probably be appreciated by the younger generation, though.
You can really hear Wale’s spoken word roots in songs like this. First, this is a very common topic among the spoken word circuit. But second, his delivery – the way he’s simply speaking to the audience – it displays his roots. Every artist should start in the spoken word realm. It helps improve writing, lyrics, songwriting and delivery. I’ll probably write an article on that soon.
The album comes full circle on the last two songs. No Days Off sounds like the first few songs – just Wale and a beat. More strong lyrics. More messages. Another strong beat. By the way, his flow throughout the album is nearly flawless. He properly adjusts to each beat and keeps the music interesting.
DC or Nothing was a perfect closing song (I believe – and hope – that That Way was just a bonus track). He speaks on DC’s troubles, corruption, etc. It’s a nice way to close out, especially since he has mostly abandoned his DC Go-go foundation on Ambition. It’s lyrical, conceptual, and pleasant to listen to.
If you’re into lyrics, you should enjoy the album.You need multiple listens to fully comprehend what he’s saying. There’s definitely some hidden gems in there.There is a fine line, however. “Just because you can’t understand him, it doesn’t mean that he’s nice”. I think on his first album, he had too many “hidden” lyrics. Lyrics that he understood but not many others did. That was his defense. He rationalized that people didn’t like the album because they couldn’t understand it. Almost like we weren’t smart enough to understand the genius in his music. That’s not at all true. If someone doesn’t like a song, reading and understanding the words won’t make them suddenly like a song. It might make them appreciate it, but a song is a song. It isn’t just lyrics. It’s the way that you choose to deliver them. Politics isn’t about the best message, it’s about who conveys it the best. Wale did a much better job this time around. Liking the song buys a listener time to actually value his words. Not everybody listens to music to study. He didn’t go too far, like many artists do. He didn’t dumb down to the point where he sounds commercialized. He understood what he needed to do and handled it. It’s the rare album that both my wife and I could listen to together.
“I’m just trying to make a classic album, something that you can put up there with Reasonable Doubt and all the stuff that’s blasphemous to compare your work to now,” Wale explained. “Why can’t I say my album is just as good as Reasonable Doubt or I’m trying to beat Reasonable Doubt? That shit is blasphemous to say.” -Wale
Ambition: “I guarantee it’s a classic” -@wale
As I listen to the album, I just can’t get that tweet or those comments out of my head. As much as I try to separate it, I can’t. He did well to create anticipation, but I feel he set the bar so high that disappointment was inevitable. No knock on Wale – he’s a good artist – but I don’t believe he has the talent to create a Reasonable Doubt-esque album. Kanye West is an interesting comparison. Kanye makes boastful statements such as this (don’t I remember him saying he gave Jay the “best beats of all-time” for Blueprint 3?). The difference is, Kanye backs it up. He keeps releasing classic music. See, that’s the thing. It all comes down to the music. Everything else is just a side show. He brags and then follows through. Many people want to hate Kanye for all his antics, but they can’t stop listening to his music. When you make these statements and don’t follow through, you start to lose believers. Rex Ryan has the Jets in the AFC Championship two straight years. But instead of being hailed as a genius, most people are instead critical because for both of those years, he has predicted something grander than that – a Superbowl. So, despite his success, the bar was set so high that he’s considered a disappointment. People can’t wait for him to fail so they can say “I told you so”.
Wale is Rex Ryan. He created an album beyond most people’s expectations, but it’s ultimately going to be regarded as a failure.
Overall, what are my thoughts? I think it’s a good album. I think if I never saw him compare it to a classic, I’d be saying “good for Wale – he’s improving”. But, similar to when Slaughterhouse declared their disappointing debut a “classic”, they’ve reset my expectations. In that sense, the album didn’t nearly live up to self-induced expectations. I don’t really have a rating system, but this is somewhere around an 3.5-4 out of 5 – similar to Cole’s.
Was he smart by raising expectations for an album that many people weren’t anticipating? Well, he’s certainly gotten our attention. I’m very interested in seeing how it’s received. My guess is it’ll receive a very lukewarm response. I predict a lot of 7/10s or 3 1/2 mics. I don’t think any respectable media outlet will mistake this for a classic. As far as sales? He’s done a great job of promoting the album. I’m guessing he’ll do 250k the first week, which will be enough for him to secure another release.
I didn’t expect much out of Wale, honestly. And because of that, I’ll admit here that I was wrong. He delivered a quality project. He has me back on the bandwagon….as long as that bandwagon doesn’t have the world “classic” plastered on it.
If you haven’t read my recent interview with Wale, I suggest you take a listen. It was extremely candid. You can find them here: part 1 part 2 part 3. He also used part of our interview in the first part of his Making of Ambition promo video.