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Album review: The Gifted, by Wale

June 25, 2013

Wale_The_GiftedWale’s third major label album, The Gifted, is a miracle, in that Wale has a third major label album. It’s rare enough for anyone in mainstream hip-hop to reach that milestone these days, especially if they get off to as rough a start as Wale did. In 2009, the Washington, D.C.-based rapper signed a million dollar deal with Interscope, and released a lead single featuring the then-ascendant Lady Gaga, but the resulting album, Attention Deficit did what experts would term “Hurricane Chris numbers.” MCs whose first album goes gold often don’t get a third, and Attention Deficit didn’t even make it halfway to gold.

So how did Wale pull off the turnaround? The inspiring answer would be that his talent and creativity prevailed, but the truth is that the witty MC who built an early fanbase with mixtapes full of obscure basketball and Seinfeld references isn’t really the one you hear on the radio these days. Wale prevailed primarily through persistence and pandering, along with some very fortunate opportunities.

After Attention Deficit bricked, he wound up on Waka Flocka Flame and Roscoe Dash’s “No Hands,” the biggest Southern rap hit of 2010, but it sounded like he stumbled onto the track due to some kind of clerical error, humbly asking permission to stay on the radio: “I’m with Waka, I’m with Roscoe, I think I deserve a chance.” He got his wish when superstar Rick Ross was building the roster for his vanity label, Maybach Music Group, and snapped up Wale along with some other major label refugees like Meek Mill, who’d previously been signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle. Meek Mill became Ross’s head-busting street rap act, while Wale became the label’s R&B smoothie, scoring a string of radio hits buoyed by hooks by popular singers like Miguel, Jeremih and T-Pain.

The Gifted was preceded by Wale’s biggest hit yet, “Bad,” and it feels like the rapper has truly arrived; he’s still more reliant on R&B hooks than any rap star since Ja Rule, but he can make hits with relative unknowns like Tiara Thomas, who wrote the killer hook of “Bad.” The second single, “LoveHate Thing,” features another new singer, Sam Dew, and captures the vibe of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” continuing the run of recent Gaye homages all over urban radio (the “Sexual Healing” vibes of Miguel’s “Adorn” and the “Got To Give It Up” sound of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”). It’s also Wale’s least pandering single to date, with the rapper opining on a topic he knows well: the hate and jealousy he feels not just as a rap star, but as the only major star out of the D.C. area. He also realizes, as he must, that he’s more successful than he is respected in hip-hop on a national level. And The Gifted feels like a smartly crafted album that tries to fix that, but doesn’t try too hard.

Wale flexes a little of the cleverness that gained him critical acclaim early on with tracks like “Gullible,” but the execution of the song’s theme of implausible rumors leaves something to be desired, with its endless series of unfunny punchlines and half-assed social commentary. “Vanity” further explores Wale’s favorite topics, ego and envy, opening with the amusing question, “How awesome is this narcissism?” but soon heads south with a cheeseball Tears For Fears interpolation. The solo track buried in the album’s back half, “Simple Man,” actually feels like Wale saying something that other rappers haven’t already said better, with a stark beat and an intricate flow.

Surprisingly, the album succeeds better at club bangers. Wale found success in Washington early on by embracing the hometown Go-Go sound. Though he’s mostly neglected that side of his music in the Maybach Music era, he returns to it with “Clappers.” The track shrewdly combines a sample of the Go-Go classic “Da Butt” by EU with the ubuitous handclap-driven beats of modern rap radio, throwing mainstream stars Nicki Minaj and Juicy J on the track with anthemic results. On “Rotation,” Wale tackles stoner rap with help from 2 Chainz and weed rap king Wiz Khalifa, and the result knocks. For once, Wale is standing shoulder to shoulder with big stars besides Rick Ross, and doesn’t sound like a third wheel like he did on “No Hands.”

The album closes with Wale returning to his roots, somewhat – the Michael Jordan-themed “88” is a nod to his basketball nerd references. And “Outro About Nothing” is a callback to his career-launching Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing that features Jerry Seinfeld himself, in a humorous skit in which he thinks they’re recording a record called Album About Nothing. Unfortunately, it feels like too little too late at the end of an album that seems more concerned with racking up Ne-Yo and Cee-Lo Green choruses to keep Wale on radio airwaves for another year. Wale’s lyrics are often aggressively topical compared to other mainstream rappers, but often after hearing them, you’re left with the feeling that it may as well have been an album about nothing.