Wale is on the up and up and up.
“Bait,” the new single from the Washington rapper, embodies the sky-touching confidence of a man who just scaled Mount Everest — even if he hasn’t left the District.
He raps about sitting courtside at a Wizards game. Then a strip club on Queens Chapel Road. Then racing his Mercedes through the streets of gentrified Washington.
With go-go band TCB riding the beat like a bulldozer, Wale plays the brilliant, blabbermouth tour guide, daring us to keep up with his hyper-nuanced references to all things hyper-local: The Goodman basketball league at Barry Farm, the defunct local clothing line H.O.B.O., ’80s drug kingpin Tony Lewis and his activist son Tony Lewis Jr.
“Bait” has become Washington’s latest local anthem, spilling out of car stereos and nightclub speakers all across the District. On a recent Friday afternoon, Wale performed it at Yardfest, the annual Homecoming concert on Howard University’s quad. As students shouted along — WORK! WORK! WORK! WORK! — the anticipation for his new album, “Ambition,” felt almost tangible in the crisp autumn air.
But here’s the rub: “Bait” isn’t on the album.
And neither is the Wale who wrote it.
Instead, the 27-year-old fills up his sophomore album with rhymes that are easier to follow and beats that are easy to forget. With R&B singers Miguel, Lloyd and Ne-Yo each parachuting in to provide melodic wallpaper, “Ambition” feels like a lazy grab for the mainstream acceptance Wale says he’s no longer chasing.
On “Legendary,” a song swaddled in faux-humility, he raps, “It’s something to be great, it’s nothing to be famous.”
Uh-huh. This album provokes so much eye-rolling, you should have a pretty good picture of your frontal lobe by the time you finish all 15 tracks.
Because who could forget Wale’s appetite for fame and fortune when he first cannonballed onto the blogosphere in 2007? His “100 Miles & Running” mix tape is still a stunner — a cocky declaration of purpose from a rapper who wanted to bring D.C. hip-hop to the national stage. But by the time he inked a record deal and dropped his 2009 debut album, “Attention: Deficit,” that vision had grown murky. Wale sounded torn between his constituencies — Internet-savvy rap fans, hip-hop traditionalists, the pop multitudes who liked that song he did with Lady Gaga.
Since then, he’s settled on being a sidekick to Rick Ross, signing to the Miami rapper’s Maybach Music Group label. But on “Chain Music,” he sounds like he should be leading the pack. It’s the strongest cut on “Ambition” — a song about how his flashiest jewelry increased his visibility, but his words are what kept fans’ attention. “They say that karats help your vision,” he puns over a tick-tocking beat. “But somehow it made them listen.”
Elsewhere, Wale’s producers let him down. The music is consistently thin, colorless and woefully unworthy of someone whose wordplay can hold chaotic rhythms together like so much five-minute epoxy. (See, again: “Bait.”)
And when the title track opens with an icy, promising tension, Wale immediately turns the whole thing lukewarm. “Took my heart away from money, I ain’t interested in fame,” he declares. “Ambition is priceless, it’s something that’s in your veins /And I put that on my name.”
It’s almost painful to hear him wax so disingenuously about his dreams. But what’s most frustrating is the irrepressible hunch that there is actual greatness inside of this guy — and that he just can’t figure out how to unleash it.
So after four years of buzzing in our ear, Wale resembles one of those Washington institutions that you can’t stop rooting for. Like the Redskins or the Wizards on a losing streak, the rapper’s worst days manage to make us feel like his best days are ahead of him.
Ambition is blind. So is faith.