Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Before Wale, D.C. officially didn’t have any famous rappers.

Sure, there had been a few ’hood favorites, a few underground talents, and a few majorlabel albums—most of which wound up in the bargain bin. Washington, according to prevailing music-industry logic, was a go-go town. Audiences interested in local music gravitated toward the percussive homegrown sound.

So the local hip-hop scene stayed small. The regional infrastructure needed to entice big record companies never developed. Some local rappers found success in Europe, but for the most part, D.C. hip-hop remained local.

In November 2009, Wale was supposed to change all that.

For several years before that, the rapper born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin had been the great hope of the city’s hip-hop scene. Born in the District and raised by his Nigerian parents in suburban Maryland, Wale was said to have it all: He had attracted a local following by nodding to the go-go tradition, but also demonstrated significant hipster appeal by incorporating buzzy electronica and indie rock into his beats. He had the sort of wordsmith’s flow that made him a plausible candidate for nationwide critical darling. Local boosters expected a commercial crossover to lead the city to mainstream relevance.

It was a lot to put on the then-25-year-old MC. Wale collapsed magnificently under the weight.

Released on Interscope Records, Wale’s big-budget debut album Attention Deficit was a schizophrenic mess. It tried to reach everyone from L.A. cokeheads to D.C. real heads, and missed on all fronts. The record flopped, D.C. didn’t become the next hip-hop mecca, and Wale definitely didn’t become an instant rap star.

Ambition, Wale’s sophomore album, is out this week. Released by the celebrated Miami rapper Rick Ross’ street-hot Maybach Music Group, the record seeks to realign Wale’s chances at stardom: Where Attention Deficit cast Wale as a pop rapper, Ross’ involvement now means he has a co-sign from a titan of lowbrow trunk-rattlers.

It’s a rare do-over for an artist at Wale’s level. These days, few rappers even get a chance to flub a major-label debut, let alone a follow-up.

And yet, to hear Wale tell it, the record is an unimpeachable classic. If you follow him on Twitter, he has already told you this, repeatedly, often using the hash-tag #classicalbum. To a degree, this is the lingua franca of modern hip-hop. Nobody admits to making just pretty good records anymore; every album is a classic in the mind of its creator, even while wider consensus over what deserves such status is becoming rarer in an era of atomized taste and Internet static.

It’s a particularly egregious claim coming from Wale, whose career arc has been so rocky. But it’s also telling. The man the Washington Post called D.C.’s “Great Rap Hope” has been consistently unable, through his music or through his gratingly unfiltered online persona, to present a coherent identity. In seeking to please all of those diverse constituencies, Wale has wound up with aimless records that please no one.

To Wale, “ambition” seems to be a synonym for “hard work”—a reflection, perhaps, of his increased commercial popularity in the last year despite his consistently inconsistent creative output. But there’s more to ambition than sheer perseverance, and on his new album, Wale rarely strives to exceed his previous accomplishments or correct his past errors.

Instead, he treads water, waiting for an audience to form in the puddles.

Wale could have been just another blip on the radar. His 2006 break-out single “Dig Dug (Shake It),” an homage to the go-go group Northeast Groovers, earned some spins on WKYS-FM, a major feat at the time. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Wale’s then-manager, DJ Alizay, was also a KYS disc jockey. But the song never resonated much further than that.

The following year, Wale was plucked from relative obscurity by hipsteratti DJ darlings Mark Ronson—the high-demand soul revivalist responsible for the sound of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black—and Nick Catchdubs. He eventually signed to Interscope Records through Ronson’s Allido imprint. These alliances eased Wale into the market through the then-burgeoning culture of MP3-driven music blogs, where the novelty of a placing a rapper’s voice over an indie dance hit like Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” was an easy sell.

Wale belongs to the first wave of major-label MCs who used blog buzz to circumvent the hometown hustle that rap careers have traditionally been built upon. Online, he had access to a worldwide audience in the infancy of his career. In the beginning, it worked. His Seinfeld-themed, occasionally smart Mixtape About Nothing was warmly received by fans and critics, establishing him as a rare favorite among commercially minded tastemakers and the notoriously fickle conscious-rap sect. Indie canon-builder Pitchfork called Mixtape About Nothingexpertly crafted, exuberantly witty, and endlessly surprising.GQ called Wale “the greatest rapper since Jay-Z.”

Jay-Z didn’t say as much, but he did sign Wale to a management deal through his Roc Nation imprint.

The Internet grind also gave Wale the grassroots platform that D.C. hadn’t been offering. As his profile rose nationally, Washington slowly embraced him from the outside in. The attention he brought helped spark a minor hip-hop renaissance, inspiring many locals to pick up the mic while giving longtime veterans a new national selling point hinged around the slightly contrived “DMV Movement,” which grouped together MCs from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. At the same time, Wale became a de facto ambassador for go-go, raising its long-suffering national profile by touring heavily with the go-go band UCB and rhyming to the go-go/hip-hop fusions of local producers Best Kept Secret. (For a time, he was so inexorably linked with the genre that some onlookers mistook go-go for a mere hip-hop offshoot, like the Bay Area’s hyphy or New Orleans’ bounce.)

All of this was building toward Wale’s major-label debut, Attention Deficit, which featured production from heavyweights like The Neptunes. Its lead single, “Chillin,” even boasted an undoubtedly costly guest appearance from Lady Gaga at the height of her “Poker Face” ubiquity. Interscope’s machine had all but handed Wale stardom on a platter.

One problem: Blog buzz or not, rap stardom doesn’t usually come on a silver platter. In trying to be everything to everybody, Attention Deficit ended up alienating much of Wale’s savvy core audience. In the meantime, it failed to connect with anyone else: The album sold a dismal 30,000 units in its first week. Only the Gucci Mane-assisted street single, “Pretty Girls,” kept true to Wale’s hometown sound by lifting a huge sample from go-go legends Backyard Band and featuring that group’s singer, Weensey. It became a hit locally, but proved a little too go-go for national radio formats. “Chillin,” too, barely cracked the Billboard charts.

Among the Internet audience that had built Wale up in the first place, the flop put a “kick me” sign on the back of his letter jacket. Every time a rap blog posted a new Wale track, the comments flooded with negative remarks—reactions that arrived with a level of speed and vitriol that was impressive even by the Internet’s standards. On the popular message board, one thread, simply titled “Wale Is Trash,” turned into a .gif roast of epic proportions. One Photoshop collage depicted Wale jumping out of a trash can à la Oscar the Grouch; another placed his face onto the body of the Pixar character WALL-E, disposing of a copy of Attention Deficit.

To call Wale “trash” isn’t really fair. On a performance level, he’s a fairly adept MC, especially compared to the peer class of middlebrow, streetwear-inspired blog rappers with whom he’s often grouped. He has a strong, God-given rap voice, a natural intensity, and a unique style that bends the influence of his favorite rapper, The Roots’ frontman Black Thought, into swinging cadences that reflect his go-go roots. On a musical level, meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine him registering as anything worse than inoffensive. Yet there’s something deeply off-putting about Wale’s public persona.

The word “public,” of course, is essential to this diagnosis. It’s entirely possible that Olubowale Folarain, the man who plays Wale on the Internet and in rap videos, is a kind and thoughtful gentleman. That was my take when I interviewed him a few years back. But the personality on offer through the @wale Twitter feed doesn’t come across that way.

On Twitter, Wale frequently indulges a violent persecution complex, bemoaning haters and “broke niggas” and publicly hounding whoever speaks ill of him. Recently, when one follower complained aggressively about not getting a retweet, Wale eventually conceded and added, “*bloooockkk* corny and thirsty ..sad really.” He meets other negative tweets with similarly cold and cryptic snaps, like “Imma jus let everygirl who follows me make fun of u..,” and “Is that u Meg Griffin ?” He seems to be angling for playful with these exchanges, but given their frequency, it’s difficult to read them as anything other than sour grapes.

Nor are more famous targets safe from Wale’s tweet wrath. He’s raged against fellow blog rapper Kid Cudi, video model Rosa Acosta, and, mostly oddly, self-proclaimed Osama bin Laden mistress Kola Boof. (Wale and Cudi have since made up, with Cudi appearing on Ambition.) It’s hard to tell who came first—Wale the insecure, easily combustible Internet personality, or Wale the Internet punching bag. But the persistence of the former obviously only gives fuel to the latter. And, in hip-hop, one’s public face matters to how audiences consume the music. Personality is as much of a product as the art.

What’s been remarkable, in the last few months, is that the haters are starting to get shouted down. The negative comments and Twitter exchanges have ceded ground to more positive ones. For all of his public turmoil—or maybe because of it—Wale is more popular today than he’s ever been. He’s become a significant presence on national urban radio for the first time in his career. His Twitter followers number well over a million. His most recent mixtapes—2010’s More About Nothing and this year’s The Eleven One Eleven Theory—got nowhere with critics, but were embraced by the public: In August, The Eleven One Eleven Theory crashed the music-hosting site Hulkshare not long after it was posted.

Late last year, Wale turned up alongside popular Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame on the still-inescapable hit “No Hands.” The strip-club anthem was an especially unexpected departure for a man known for unexpected departures. Even more unexpectedly, Wale sounded more comfortable on it than he had in a long while. It also caught him in a rare moment of humility—“I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped several bars into his verse. (Never mind that the comment was mostly likely directed toward a stripper whom he intended to shower with cash.)

Following the success of “No Hands,” Wale inked a deal with Maybach. The aggressive, street-oriented Ross might not have made for the most logical musical alliance—some of the hip-hop purists remaining in Wale’s fanbase were surely screaming sacrilege—but, professionally, it made sense. Like Wale, Ross presents a personality that defies likeability on paper. And Ross’ career, in its early stages, also seemed doomed, particularly following the 2008 revelation that he had worked as a corrections officer yet rapped about criminality. Nevertheless, Ross has become the most popular gangsta rapper of the moment, and he did it by merely rapping well and continuing to exist.

That Ross connection surely helped Wale get into a few car stereos this summer. On first listen, he was a quiet presence on the recent Maybach compilation Self Made, Vol. 1. He was missing from the album’s riotous street anthems “Tupac Back” and “I’ma Boss. (His own similarly charged “600 Benz” didn’t quite connect on the same level.) But Wale’s “That Way,” the last of seven (!) singles from the project, eventually became the rapper’s highest-charting track to date. It’s undeniably one of the year’s strongest rap ballads. Sure, attribute much of that greatness to buzzy producer Lex Luger’s warm Curtis Mayfield chop, and crooner Jeremih’s impassioned hook, but even that’s a big step for the rapper. Finally, Wale seems to have picked up some restraint. Where he used to leap into his genre experiments with a suffocating bound, he now approaches them with a little more tact. The successes of “That Way” and “No Hands” have as much to do with what Wale doesn’t do on them as what he does.

But to listen to Wale’s second album, it’s pretty clear he isn’t moving beyond that growth. And it’s easy to guess why. Hip-hop is afflicted by straw-man arguments: The myth of the anonymous hater has made rappers like Wale feel impervious to critique. Each “broke hater” that comes out of the woodwork to say something negative puts more distance between him and any perceived culpability for his past failures. “Critic apologies are rare but they are my trophies,” Wale recently Tweet-ranted. In other words, he expects his audience to apologize for his bad record.

Because Wale’s definitely not an artist who was blessed with an opportunity that most would only dream of, who sorta screwed it up, and who was then given an even less likely second chance. He’s a heaven-chosen born superstar, and anybody who says otherwise, even constructively, has affronted this divinity.

On Ambition, despite the Maybach alliance, Wale is still making many of the mistakes he won’t admit he made on its predecessor. Musically, the album starts off strong enough, with its first third handled largely by longtime collaborator Tone P., of Best Kept Secret, and fellow Washingtonian Mark Henry, who both hang loosely in the go-go pocket. But unlike “Pretty Girls” or the strangely absent recent single “Bait”—another local hit—these new fusions of hip-hop and go-go provide enough of a cranking backbone to satisfy local listeners without alienating outsiders or radio formats.

But almost as quickly as Wale establishes this sound, he lets it go, and the record melts into the type of nondescript hit-chasing goo that so many major-label rap albums splash around in. “Slight Work,” produced by Diplo, shamelessly tries to recreate the whistle and pop of the Philly hipster mainstay’s Chris Brown megahit, “Look at Me Now.” The Kid Cudi collaboration, “So Focused,” evokes the same trance mush that comprises every Kid Cudi record. “White Linen” offers a thin and fluttering ’80s sensibility—it’s practically chillwave.

The only thing Wale and his production team seem crystal clear about is what Ambition is not: a typical Maybach Music Group record. Apart from the label’s trademark vocal drop and cameos from Ross and Maybach crony Meek Mill on the title track, there’s very little here that conjures up the energy or menace of Ross’ recent string of celebrity-obsessed goth-crunk hits. Wale seems to be asserting his musical identity in drawing this line, nodding to the old fans who were afraid that the MMG alliance would immediately spell “sell-out.” It would’ve been a nice gesture, had it come from a rapper who has actually established a musical identity of his own.

Unlike a rapper like Wiz Khalifa, Wale’s personality and songwriting do very little to anchor this sonic indecision. He’s not a strong chorus writer, mostly leaving that duty to guest vocalists like Miguel or to go-to hook man Tre, of D.C.’s UCB. When he doesn’t have anyone to assist, Wale flails awkwardly. His raps are sometimes tightly penned, but to no end. “Legendary” and “Chain Music” represent some of Wale’s lyrically-lyrical showboat moments, but they mostly involve sputtering and dated pop-culture punchlines about Stevie Wonder (he’s blind!), Sandra Bullock, and Ray Charles (also blind!) delivered in wordy strings. Conceptually, “DC Or Nothing” is one of the more focused songs, and the only to engage the city at length. It’s an artfully executed but ultimately dismal picture of the District—murder, AIDS, gentrification—made in the name of a pride he can’t quite articulate.

There’s plenty of other stuff to like on the album, of course. Wale’s summer hit “That Way” makes a welcome enough return—it was previously released on the Maybach compilation and the Eleven One Eleven mixtape—as the new record’s final song. He also extends the track’s romantic motif to “Lotus Flower Bomb” and the more aggressive “Illest Bitch.” His continued and reasonably effective mining of this terrain—the oft-dreaded for da ladies rap— might account for a large part of his recent success. He writes women well, and seems to write to women well.

But still, there are issues. Wale’s romantic writing can be troublesome, or at least goofy, if you’re not the object of his affection. He’s the inexplicably successful pickup artist whose pandering sweet talk means everything to its intended target while everyone else in the room gags on its sleaziness. It doesn’t help that he delivers these paeans alongside the more blatantly off-putting sex raps that populate other parts of the album. You’d think any progress he’s made as an LL Cool J-esque lady’s man would be negated once he says something like, “She so stingy with vagina/but why it open when a nigga get to shinin’?”

Even when it comes to the ladies, Wale is still several rappers, not one.

Ambition’s most frequent motif, in the end, is also its most grating: Wale’s greatness.

On the album, Wale declares himself a “genius” several times, at one point describing himself as a mix of Che Guevara and Malcolm X. Fine, so complaining about arrogance on a rap album is like calling a blues record sad, but Wale belongs to rap’s insufferable new school of hyper-arrogance. Instead of rap’s typical boasts of dopeness, we get sweeping and grandiose gestures of importance. They’re not just the best rappers; in 2011, everyone sees themselves as a legend or an icon. Late-period Jay-Z was probably the first rapper to inflate braggadocio to this level, but he has a catalog and a resume to justify it.

Wale, not so much. He’s still an underdog, at least until next week’s Soundscans come out, and his on-record self-assuredness is undermined by his frequent real-world need to lash out at his detractors. More than that, it’s striking how rarely he employs this arrogance in the service of creativity or cleverness. Instead, he takes a tell-not-show approach to greatness. The same goes for his idea of ambition, which seems to involve little more than quite bluntly reminding everyone in earshot of his ambitiousness. And it seems like people are beginning to believe him.

“Success is just a process,” Wale posits on “Legendary.” If that’s true, then his recent surge of popularity can be attributed to nothing more than a formula. He’s gone through the motions, gotten the right co-signatures, landed the right guest appearances, made himself scarce when necessary, and floated his name along for precisely the right amount of time it takes to matter.

But there’s a difference between being hot and being a legend. It’ll be a little more complicated for Wale to resonate beyond present-day relevance. If he ever intends to make a classic on the level that he believes Ambition to be, then he first needs to realize he doesn’t get to make that call. That decision’s best left to the listeners.