If you’re looking for a case study in the pratfalls of the new music industry, search no further than Washington, D.C. rapper Wale, who released his sophomore album “Ambition” yesterday.
Since his earliest mixtape work, Wale has shown himself to be a talented rapper who can’t write hooks, and his major label efforts are frictionless affairs that slide by in boring competence.
But let’s start from the beginning.
In 2007, Wale broke out with the mixtape “100 Miles and Running,” and he followed that with the equally impressive “The Mixtape About Nothing” in 2008. Both tapes showcased a formidable wit and sophisticated flow — and don’t think that “Seinfeld” reference wasn’t irresistible to rap bloggers.
So, the D.C. boy, the one who still pays homage to his hometown’s go-go music, blew up nationwide, signing with Interscope Records. That proved little consolation when his tepid, confusing debut album, 2009’s “Attention: Deficit,” had a disastrous first week, moving only 28,000 units and missing the top 20 amid accusations that it was undershipped and abandoned by the label.
Eventually fleeing Interscope for Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group, Wale had learned the hard way that convincing listeners to buy an album has a degree of difficulty far greater than feeding them a free mixtape, even for a blog darling.
He changed tactics in the run-up to “Ambition,” partnering with music downloading site Hulkshare to advertise the LP after he crashed the site’s servers with mixtape “The Eleven One Eleven Theory.” Now, “Ambition” touches down to the sound of crickets, and it looks like Wale might repeat this whole ordeal again.
Despite topping the iTunes charts, chatter surrounding “Ambition” has been minimal. In switching to Ross’ label, Wale surrounded himself with rappers who are all better than him at MMG’s brand of rap — forceful, shuddering bangers paired with poignant storytelling.
Rick Ross has more charisma in his beard than Wale does in his entire body, up-and-coming Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill has settled in as Ross’ right-hand man and Ohio import Stalley seems to be the designated backpacker.
That means Wale’s left without a role, again, and you can hear that confusion on his new album.
Devoid of character, “Ambition” flaunts Wale’s technical ability and not much else. Other than on “Legendary,” where a middle-ground is finally achieved between MMG’s menace and his mixtapes’ city-at-night insouciance, the beats fall flat around Wale’s schizophrenia.
With a solid base of listeners but little radio presence, Wale’s closest recent precedent appears to be the deplorable Big Sean, who appears on “Ambition” track “Work” and, like Wale, counts himself among the coterie of a rap titan, in this case Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. Sean sold 87,000 copies of “Finally Famous” during its first week of release in June, and that number probably represents the ceiling for “Ambition.”
If “Ambition” doesn’t touch the top ranks of the Billboard charts — which, without a major single, is certainly possible — Wale will have another failure on his hands, this time for MMG and Warner Bros. Hopefully, tweets from LeBron and Ochocinco translate into album sales, but don’t count on it.
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