Think

Taking Me Back: ‘Ambition’ and Tape Cassettes

By Shane’a Thomas

90s babies, it’s over. This path on my way to my 30s is starting to get really interesting, where the script in my head has copyrighted the horrid words of my parents when I was younger.

“Back in the day when I was younger…”, “Shoooot, when WE were younger, we used to…”, “See, y’all have it good because when I was your age, we used to…”, and I love the team approach, (after being insulted or called ‘old’ by a kid, you look at a nearby person of same age and try to save face) “Old?! Boy, watch this! Johnny, you remember [ this dance/song/article of clothing/embarrassing moment in history that just makes you seem older]?”

We are starting to feel the aches and pains of being athletes in high school, popping out kids, and trying to avoid looking like the old person in the club trying to pick up young’uns (what’s your cut-off age? Anything you say after this question was possibly inappropriate), and the music we listen to is starting to sound like “garbage” and “boom boom music”  (yep, that includes popping in an old Tribe Called Quest CD and reminiscing on the Native Tongues).  Music has changed as we didn’t think it was going to.  We were hoping it would wait forever before it was unrecognizable, and made us feel outdated.

As a school social worker, I learned fast that I was not only old, but uncool.  As much as I still hold onto the love of my sweatshirts and sneakers, the kids were always newer and they were already plotting for the next pair of reissued Jordans (“Back in the day when I was younger, we wore the ORIGINAL Penny Hardaways! And don’t get me on those Grant Hills!”).  I caught onto slang late, comparing notes with other coworkers, and often shamelessly had kids give us a 101.  DC is different from growing up in the suburbs.  A bit harder, rougher, and more critical.  There is an elitist attitude no matter what you look like.  There is a standard you must meet, and if you’re from out of town, you have to put on a good performance to let people know you’re down.  DC natives can smell ‘bammas from a mile away.  There is a line of time where the kids and I connected over music, but it always turned into an argument of Jay-Z versus Biggie, and both parties leave mad, mostly over wasted time.

That’s why I am a cheerleader for Wale.  Though, if I saw Wale on the street today, I would have no idea what he looked like.  He is DC.  Dreads, white T-shirts, Nike Boots.  And drive. “Ambition”.  Hunger.  This guy says he has no days off and means it.  Kinda makes you question your own work ethic. He had to catch his footing in the beginning (i.e. Lady Gaga?), and packaging go-go into something the nation can get a taste of, despite the eye rolls and boos in New York clubs I went to, he found his wave to ride on this new album.  As vulnerable as he is and the topics he chooses to discuss (the skin color discussion and trying to understand a women’s self-esteem ), he is straining every word out of him. “Turn the music up, I wanna fight the music” he says on “Illest Bitch” — and he does.  It’s as if he is being conscious of his timing (or just being conscious. Would Malcolm or Martin support him calling his sister a “bitch” over a nice beat? Doubt it.  But your determination to shape what is right, truth and history laced by your intention makes the idea, cute.), remember his lyrics, and imitating, or rather beating, whoever he is trying to beat to be number one.

Hunger.  A gritty rawness and fight to beat yourself, after you beat your city.  You can feel the hard work he put into this album, whether you think his album is a classic, success or flop.  That doesn’t matter.  For someone who respects and guiltily loves a good “rose growing in concrete” story (in an admittedly privileged social worker type way), I respect the hustle.  As the less fortunate on the side of the roads asking for money, or creating their own clothing lines or selling homemade print shirts for Howard Homecoming or Gay Pride doesn’t bring as much money as an entertainer, the hustle is the same.  Prove to me I’m going to come up if I use this, and we have a deal.

I miss that in rap.  I believe 80s babies, like me, don’t mind the flashy clothes (remember Cross Colours?) or even the half-nude women in the videos (I wasn’t really allowed to watch the “Pumps in a Bumps” video for obvious reasons, but I found a way). But the music doesn’t appeal because it seems that few artists work hard anymore.  Everyone recycles a beat and talks about the same thing over and over again.  Nas was hungry, Talib Kweli, Fat Joe and the Fugees  starved too.  Wale knows that he is behind in the game, and fighting a place in rap nationally is not going to be an easy road without the plethora of stars coming from one place (i.e.Brooklyn, Chicago, Compton, Miami), using unknown elements.  “Bait” makes me smile because I remember hearing my kids in school talk about the girls they wanted to pull, “bait”, and realizing that no one else really uses that slang.  Wale holds a heavy load, not just trying to fight his way to the top, with or without his city, he’s trying to stomp his foot in pop culture for DC.

So, I have set “Watch the Throne” to the side finally after months of repeated plays, and I have an album worth listening to a little closer than recent releases.  It’s like I either don’t want the feeling of “work” to go away because who knows when it will come again, or I want to see if I can conceptualize this passion in my head.  To realize how humanly possible is it to want something.  I maybe be old, I can appreciate the effort of another. But whether I think that his new album is a classic, success or a flop actually doesn’t matter.

It’s the voice of DC that rises, all outsiders step back.

 

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