Backed by welcoming keystrokes and light female vocals, Wale opens Ambition with “Don’t Hold Your Applause,” putting forth the task at hand: “Tired of makin’ money/I’m on to makin’ history.” Now liberated by the artistic and financial mobility achieved by uniting with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group, Wale is focused on lasting impact, not sales or major-label-manufactured hits.

At his core, he is still the same artist that became a leader of the early run of Internet baby boomers late last decade—standing on slick and nimble wordplay complemented by honesty, conscience and perspective. But now Wale seems freer, both musically and mentally. Early on, “Miami Nights” is a jazzy, colorful celebration of Ross’s hometown. That upbeat spirit persists over the subtle synths of the female-friendly “Lotus Flower Bomb,” featuring Miguel, and “Focused,” an up-tempo, overdue reunion with friend turned foe turned friend Kid Cudi.

The rowdy drums and heavy bass of Rozay’s own offerings and the MMG compilation Self Made, Vol. 1 aren’t here, but it feels like The Bawse’s sense of proper beat selection looms over the musicality of the album, rife with live-sounding instrumentation.

Wale does diverge from the pep on the harder “Chain Music” and “Ambition,” a smooth, rolling opus featuring Ross and Meek Mill. On the dark, determined “Legendary,” he promises his “only fear is mediocrity,” and proves throughout that such middling will never be an issue lyrically. The part-time ESPN analyst proves he’s still the captain of sports references, kicking, “I’ma let the chips fall/Niggas is Kemba Walker, tryna see me pitfall,” on “Double M Genius,” a crafty reference to when Walker, a recent college basketball star, caused a Pittsburgh player to hit the hardwood with a quick deke.

Always a thinker, the former XXL Freshman still forms endearing and uplifting unpackings of Black femininity (“Illest Bitch Alive”), but he does so with a revamped approach. Similarly, he’s still deeply rooted in the nation’s capital, and on “DC or Nothin,” he questions the dichotomy of his home city (“Politicians fuckin’ hookers/Why you mad at my ganja?”) in a fresh way. Yet even with more hunger and cohesion than on his debut, there’s less vulnerability here. The project misses some of the trickier, more internally and socially exploratory concepts of which he’s proven capable time and again.

But then this is indicative of the different space within which Wale now finds himself. The sonic mood of Ambition reflects its title and author and proves, on the whole, far warmer than his debut. On the title track, he raps, “They gon’ love me for my ambition/Easy to dream a dream, though it’s harder to live it.” Wale seems to be living his on this sophomore album. —Adam Fleischer

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