In the years leading up to his first official album release, Wale was one of the most hyped rappers out there – lauded by music magazines as well as named one of GQ’s “Men of the Year” in 2009 (along with Drake and Kid Cudi), dropping consistently solid mixtapes year after year (I would argue that 100 Miles & Running is still his best – listen to his remix of Justice on “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.” if you don’t believe me), opening for Jay-Z on his Blueprint III tour across the country, and generally putting DC on the nation’s hip-hop radar (sorry, Tabi Bonney). Despite all of this, his 2009 debut on Interscope, Attention Deficit, was considered a commercial failure, selling less than 75,000 copies even with positive reviews across the board and a slew of guests (Dave Sitek, Cool & Dre, Mark Ronson, and The Neptunes producing; Lady Gaga, J. Cole, Gucci Mane, and Bun B on vocals).

Since then, Wale released two more mixtapes, appeared as a guest on a slew of tracks, blew up Twitter (I’ve literally never seen one artist have as many consistent trending topics as him), and signed with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group earlier this year. His first appearance on the new label was strong with solid tracks across the label’s Self Made Volume I compilation album and he quickly followed that up with the mixtape The Eleven One Eleven Theory. His #NoDaysOff movement had him touring and recording across the country nonstop seemingly endlessly this summer leading up to his second official full-length release. So does Wale avoid the sophomore slump?

Well, overall, yes. One of my only qualms with Attention Deficit was that it seemed to ignore Wale’s DC roots and shown skill with rapping over and alongside go-go bands and beats, only appearing on one song (“Pretty Girls“). This album seems to have the same problem, eschewing his traditional sound for slower beats and R&B appearances (Miguel, Lloyd, Ne-Yo, and Jeremih all show up here) outside of a few places – but when it does get back to more of his own style, the songs are incredibly strong. This isn’t to say it’s a bad album – it’s far from it and all around a really terrific showing. But it’s also not an immediate classic. Since the album tends to hit a lot of different notes stylistically, let’s run through the songs individually.

1. “Don’t Hold Your Applause” – Wale seems to come out of the gate swinging with his lyrics on this, but I honestly feel like the beat and almost overwhelming female harmonizing vocals in the background serve to drag the song down a bit more than they should. I would’ve hoped for a harder opening considering Wale’s affiliation with Maybach Music Group, but it’s certainly not a bad song – just a little too long.

2. “Double M Genius” – not going to lie, I love the horns in the background of this one (then again, I tend to love just about any beat with horns). Much more of a go-go vibe to this one with the band in the background and the singer on the chorus. Good to hear that they brought the sound in early on the album, unfortunately that it wasn’t utilized better. It has the opposite problem of the first song – I think this one is too short overall.

3. “Miami Nights” – definitely a chill vibe to this song that seems to fit the topic (hint: the title of the song). I love the drums in the background though. A solid song but nothing spectacular or mind-blowing.

4. “Legendary” – honestly, this beat sounds just like something Rick Ross would rhyme over – I was almost expecting him to randomly show up with a guest verse the whole time. Wale goes with a little bit of a slower flow here to fit the beat at the beginning of the song and on the chorus but definitely picks it up a bit in the second verse. I’m glad he did because the second half of the song is definitely the better part.

5. “Lotus Flower Bomb” – the first single from the album, it features R&B up-and-comer Miguel in a supporting role. This one is definitely for all the ladies out there – Wale wants to love you and treat you right, not just jump into bed, didn’t you know? It might be a traditional rap/R&B collaboration if it weren’t for the presence of Miguel, who I find far more interesting in the role than most generic R&B singers would – he has a different vibe to him that works really well in conjunction with Wale’s verses.

6. “Chain Music” – I’m not going to lie, when I first heard this on The Eleven One Eleven Theory, it was instantly my favorite song on the mixtape. The beat starts sparse before the bass kicks in – and when it does, so do Wale’s rhymes. Definitely stylistically similar to his more mixtape-focused songs (even sampling Rick Ross on the chorus with the line “chain so big can’t pop my collar” off his “Hard In Da Paint Freestyle”), it easily stands out as one of the best songs on the album and my personal favorite.

7. “Focused” – featuring the now-reconciled Kid Cudi (after their 2010 spat), it’s unfortunate that they relegated him to the role of backup singer instead of featuring a rap verse from him. That said, it’s a very good song (and the second single), bringing to mind the kind of songs that you might have found on Cudi’s first album with more non-traditional beats and sounds. I like it and Wale does a great job rapping over it.

8. “Sabotage” – another R&B collaboration, this time with singer Lloyd. While the guitar in the background is a nice touch, I think most of the beginning of the song sounds a little too bland considering we’ve all seen Wale demonstrate something more on these types of songs (even just earlier on the album). That said, the song really picks up near the end with the guitars getting louder, the drums going crazy, Lloyd picking up his end of the bargain, and Wale rapping over all of it – a great ending to what started as a bland song. You can literally hear Wale lose his voice while rapping and singing over the clamor. After a few repeat listens, it definitely stands out to me as one of the stronger songs on the album (if only that first part didn’t turn me off so much).

9. “White Linen (Coolin’)” – yes, this is the third collaboration with an R&B singer on the album, this time with Ne-Yo. The beat is a bit more upbeat than the previous rap/R&B combos, with electronic vibes mixing with live instruments. While I find Ne-Yo to be a strong singer and Wale’s verses to be solid (if slightly slipping into cliche at times), I think this song is everything I thought “Sabotage” would be – a generic rap/R&B song.

10. “Slight Work” – featuring Detroit’s Big Sean (who himself released a strong debut album earlier this year) and produced by Diplo, the beat immediately kicks in with a police siren and some go-go inspired drums and sound effects. Upbeat and high tempo, Wale kills the beginning – and why wouldn’t he, since this is exactly the kind of song we’ve heard him murder over and over again with great results. Big Sean drops in for the second verse with a strong showing demonstrating just why his album was so good. Another one of my favorites from the album.

11. “Ambition” – the first showing from any of his Maybach Music compatriots, this one features labelmate Meek Mill and head honcho Rick Ross. The beat is strong with solid bass and strings. Meek Mill opens it up – if you like him, you like him, but I’ve generally been unimpressed so far. Ricky Rozay has the second verse and a solid showing from the label head. Wale handles the chorus and the last verse, closing out the song with the best (and hungriest) verse on it.

12. “Illest Bitch” – a song dedicated to his sister, it’s another slow one with guitars and pianos in the background. I guess every rap album has one of these – not necessarily a bad song, but definitely one I would skip more often than not.

13. “No Days Off” – sharing a name with his Twitter topic leading up to the album release, the song basically outlines his hard-working mentality. Rapping over a slow-building and bass-heavy beat, Wale drops some solid verses but nothing mind-blowing.

14. “DC Or Nothing” – a heavy guitar riff, pianos, singers, and hand claps make up the backbone of this beat (I’d say it’s one of the best on here) with Wale returning to his quicker flow on it. I don’t know who sings on the chorus, but they definitely bring a gospel vibe to it all. An ode to the city he’s from, this is definitely my second favorite song on the album. Wale closes out with a spoken word verse before a final chorus and crescendo of guitars and hand claps kill it.

15. “That Way” – first appearing on Maybach Music Group’s Self Made Volume I (and also on the latest mixtape, The Eleven One Eleven Theory), this track features Rick Ross and singer Jeremih. A strong piano beat drives Wale’s verses with Jeremih crooning on the chorus and Rick Ross on the third verse. While it’s another one for the ladies, it’s a strong song overall.

16. “Bait” – another one that first was released on The Eleven One Eleven Theory (with a DC-focused video supporting it), this song only appears on the deluxe edition of the album. A go-go inspired beat (probably the most so on the album with a call and response and live band elements), Wale kills every verse and the chorus is immediately catchy and will get lodged in your brain for days. Based on his lyrical dexterity demonstrated on this song, you’ll understand Wale’s boast of “big homie Hov said I am close.”

Overall, a very solid outing from Wale – it still shares some of the smaller issues from the first album, but all around seems much more focused and concise. A few more slower songs than we’re used to from him, but anyone who’s not a huge fan of those will find solace in more bass-heavy bangers like “Chain Music,” “Ambition,” and “Bait.” Unfortunately, I just wish it had a few more of the latter and a few less of the former – but either way, the strength of the strong tracks definitely outweigh the weaker. It may not live up to all of the lofty standards we’ve placed on Wale based on his mixtapes, but it’s definitely an album I’d recommend to just about anyone who enjoys good rap music.

Ambition Maybach Music 2011