Wale’s 2009 debut, Attention Deficit, wasn’t just a flop. It was a potential career-killer, selling a paltry 28,000 copies in its first week—a number that, given the hype and hopes around the rapper at the time, would have been disappointing for a small independent release, let alone a labored Mark Ronson production with a Lady Gaga feature for a lead single. Wale’s second chance came earlier this year in unexpected form: Rick Ross, who saw potential in the humbled D.C. rapper, and signed him to Ross’ flourishing Maybach Music Group. With its Ross-sized boasts of fast cars, big chains, and loose women, Wale’s resulting sophomore effort, Ambition, is such a complete reboot that some rappers might have opted for a name change before releasing it. Yet it isn’t a total stretch for a chameleon like Wale, who has already reinvented himself several times over his short career, scampering from the club-ready go-go of his hometown to conscious mix-tape rap, and then to Attention Deficit’s attempted crossover rap. Ambition is just his latest pop grab, and in many respects, it’s more realized than his last one.
The most striking change on the album isn’t Wale’s newly hedonistic lyrical bent (though that is a bit of a shock), but rather Maybach Music Group’s decadent, deep-pocketed production, a definite trade-up from Attention Deficit’s manic, little-bit-of-everything hodgepodge. Many of these beats are so lustrous, they sound as if they were performed by a crack 12-piece house band—it’s easy to imagine that Ross staffs a full stable of veteran Isley Brothers session players—and several are further smoothed out by high-end choruses from R&B fantasists like Miguel, Ne-Yo, and Lloyd, who positively cuts loose over the luxury-cruise soul of the standout “Sabotage.”
In its efforts to woo women listeners, Ambition softens some of the harder edges from Maybach’s other releases, but Ross’ rotund shadow looms large over the record nonetheless. The mogul gets feature credits on two songs, and even on a couple of tracks he isn’t billed on. He’s there in the background, grunting approvingly, reminding everybody who made this possible.