The Ascent is a rather misleading title. The reality is that grime artist Wiley’s ninth album starts off with two excellent tracks and then suffers a precipitous drop into forgettable oblivion.
“Ascent Intro” and “First Class” work excellently together. “Ascent Intro” builds slowly through radio static into the least convoluted production on the album. There is not a chorus per se, but pitch-shifting vocal samples appear where it would have been. The relative calm of the intro leads into the aggression of “First Class”, which makes up for forgettable verses with rumbling basslines, stabbing synths and bhangra flourishes.
The album works best when the listener is distracted from the performers. Wiley seems to have nothing in particular to say and it does not help matters that the copious guest performers are largely indistinguishable from one another. With the exceptions of Emeli Sande and French Montana, who appear together on the bleating “My Heart”, all the features are pop singers delivering manufactured, anthemic choruses or grime rappers speaking quickly, but saying nothing.
Unfortunately, the production is nearly unbearably bland. The meat of the album is a pack of dance songs that seem to all ride the same swelling, EDM 101 synth. When Far East Movement’s contributions are monotony-breaking, you know you’re in trouble. But their guest spot on “So Alive” is really pretty solid, and they seem to have a knack for making songs that are way better than they have any right to be.
“Chainsaw” is a darker track, with a keening buzz laced through the beat that sounds more like a pack of melodic frogs than the titular chainsaw. It is an interesting detail and “Chainsaw” would probably sound great as a segment of a club mix, but listening to the whole thing is a grating experience.
Buried at the bottom of the album and feature-less, “Ninja” and “Broken Thoughts” are brief glimpses of what The Ascent could have been. Wiley’s gravelly patois sounds great over the glossiness of “Ninja”. “Broken Thoughts” is a step away from cloying clubbiness and towards the reflection associated with “night bus.” The production, rain-driven and slightly wobbly, powers it, but Wiley is also at his most compelling here, lonely and claustrophobic.
“I may as well live on my own, I feel trapped how I live on my phone. She asked me if I cheated and I did. I said no though, I couldn’t admit,” he says, making no excuses and offering no apology.