OPINION: On Wale’s Ambition, and notes on hip hop’s latest generation…
by Marcus K. Dowling
This is a Washington, DC story with international implications.
Much maligned Washington, DC area rapper Wale’s sophomore release Ambition dropped on Tuesday morning, and in the mind of this columnist, is a perfect album. However, this isn’t a discussion of the lyrical abilities of the Prince George’s County, Maryland native, but rather a tale of the nature of hip hop’s handling of it’s newest princes aiming for the now established throne at the top of the game. In settling on and creating an expectation for his material, Wale has decided likely the best, if not most controversial path for his ascension. Instead of lambasting the Maybach Music Group aligned emcee, I stand here in praise of his work. They don’t call it the music friends, they call it the music business. When the game switches from getting people to like you on Facebook, follow you on Twitter and download your mixtapes for free to making as much money as quickly as humanly possible, the rules for appreciating an emcee and finding value in their work change as well. In the story of Wale, we tell the story of the rise of hip hop’s latest defining generation.
If you’re going to be a rapper talking about something, you need to find a gimmick that adds worth and truth to the meaning of your words. The easiest way to do this is to carefully identify yourself as an independent performer. You eschew all notion of labels, and the oft dreaded “label politics,” and your fan base is willing to connect with you because of your inherent desire to remain “true to your ideals.” Like Tony Montana realizing that “his balls and his word is all (he) has,” fellow DC emcees like Oddisee and Tabi Bonney have excelled in meeting this notion. The road isn’t headed towards iced out chains and Bentley coupes, but rather towards a lifelong supply of Tom’s Shoes and the ability to enjoy a nice dinner every two weeks.
Wale seemingly never wanted to be a rapper rapping about something. Attention Defiicit actually fails because of this. This man simply wants to smoke, drink, party and look fly while doing it. His potential for mainstream success is entirely linked to being a rapper who’s unbelievably great at rapping about these notions, which when compared to the likes of Kid Cudi, makes him look like he’s rapping about absolutely nothing at all. He even has two Seinfeld inspired mixtapes, “A Mixtape About Nothing,” and “More About Nothing” that attest to this fact. The necessary route that a man who deigns to be a pillar to the altar of ultimate meaninglessness is to acquire a team, a label, a brand that lives in the maximal ideal. MMG is this generation’s ultimate example of this ideal. Wale isn’t Oddisee, he’s Wiz Khalifa, a rapper born–like some new rappers gaining relevance–in a minimalist experience with enormous dreams that are bigger than a box with wires and the concept of humility could ever hold.
Ambition is an amazing album because it’s one of the few times in rap history that a performer has written a “fuck you” to his legion of haters and left them grasping at straws in dank, dreary “underground hip hop” nights and engaging in slavish blog devotion leading a rising emcee to a sad, cold destination as songs number 600-799 on someone’s 25,000 track iTunes playlist. Wale has exchanged poorly aimed critical hate for the warm smiles that can only come when a pretty girl is blinded by your ice and imagining herself living from inside of your pockets. Ambition is yet another meaningless word that like rapping “More About Nothing,” people can place their hopes, dreams and aspirations into. Wale’s switched from being the guy endearingly dreaming about one pair of “Nike Boots,” to wanting to own the entire Nike brand.
“11-1-11″ mixtape track “Bait” threw many off the scent. However, if we were more aware, it wouldn’t have. Remember B.O.B.? Once a heralded underground emcee who was a rapping ass rapper who loved guitars and being from the South, he climbed aboard a money-laden “Airplane” and changed. Occasionally, in a ham handed attempt to not forget his indie roots, he drops the occasional mixtape that bloggers say is “B.O.B. not forgetting his past.” “11-1-11″ is Wale following those footsteps. “Bait” passionately name drops over 25 DC specific people, places and things. It’s the kind of song that makes you love to be from the DMV, as rapped by someone from the DMV. Smartly, Wale’s guiding gimmick is not “I’m a DMV rapper.” Though Ambition features the anthemic “DC or Nothing,”the city is not at a level of mainstream acceptance to push it as a a gimmick with intrigue. At present, being a DC-based dude writing albums around champagne dreams and vague notions open to anyone’s interpretation? A better initial fit allowing for the eventual growth of a DMV-centric brand.
It’s now apparent that Wale’s ambition was not to be your superstar, but the world’s superstar. He finally got it right.