To devout hip-hop fans, there are two Wales: the go-go rhyming, Seinfeld-obsessed emcee before his feature on "No Hands," and the watered-down Maybach Music cohort after it. Rising to prominence through relentless mixtape work and an underdog mentality (the dude landed a collaboration with the biggest pop star in the world and still struggled to sell units), the DC emcee's guest verse on Waka Flocka Flame's club smash catapulted him to stardom and subsequent accusations of selling out.
After radio exposure and a rocky second LP, Ambition, expectations were sky high for The Gifted, released Tuesday through MMG and Atlantic Records. Wale said that the music would speak for itself, and ultimately it does, in more ways than you'd expect. The Gifted is challenging and erratic, pinning old Wale against new in different segments of the album. Its strongest songs (and man, they're really strong) point out the exact pitfalls of its precipitous lows; its emphasis on live instrumentation and "new black soul" undermined by a series of uninspired club songs midway through; its subject matter varying from the bold and introspective to the most surface-level topics of hip-hop. The Gifted is palatable enough for fans of both Wales, although the inconsistency leaves a bit to be desired.
The album kicks off with "The Curse of the Gifted," a brilliant intro with sprawling guitars and dramatic keys. “Now my dreams is nothing more than minimal thoughts/My Gs gon fluctuate those speakers to God," he raps, setting a putative tone of self-reflection. Momentum builds with "LoveHate Thing," in which Wale battles shifting perceptions in his hometown and the lessons he's learned during his ascent to stardom. “My affinity grows as the city gets cold," he boasts over a Marvin Gaye sample. “I’m trying to redefine the culture and renovate the soul."
"Sunshine" is just as strong, with Wale going three for three in the album's beginning. Complete with Miami synth and funky bass, the song is powered by a strong hook and the rapper's introspective musings of hitting his prime, fearing marriage and losing a football scholarship at Bowie State. "Golden Salvation" features Wale ambitiously rhyming as Jesus, commenting on the popularity and contradictory nature of Jesus pieces in hip-hop. With church organs and crooning choirs, songs like "Golden Salvation" have the propensity to come off corny (ask labelmate Meek Mill). But Wale's sharp lyrics make the track exceptional, noting, “I seen a reverend with five of me as he read his scripture/This is bible readings to people with malice intentions." It's one of the genre's best songs with religious imagery since a certain Chicago emcee blew up.
It's right after this that the album takes an unexpected dip south. "Vanity" showcases Wale's proclivity for self-aware lyrics ("how awesome is this narcissism?," he begins), but it's drowned out in autotune hooks and a beat that sounds identical to the second-half of Justin Timberlake's "LoveStoned." Wale bounces back on the Cee-Lo Green-assisted "Gullible," where he talks about Twitter, television and the racial perception of Barack Obama over swooping horns and strong guitar riffs. But then he falls right back down with "Clappers," a party song that starts with "shawty got a big ol' butt!"
Despite a fierce guest verse from Nicki Minaj, "Clappers" is worrisome for an artist who claimed he's "trying to redefine the culture and renovate the soul" just seven songs before. A formulaic song about fat asses, one where Juicy J actually says "make that ass clap, I don't care about that cellulite," is far from redefining the culture: it's perpetuating the culture's weakest elements. Wale follows with a remix of "Bad," going back-and-forth with Rihanna about sex on thundering bass. It's not even a bad song, but it's far from the culture redefining he was striving toward at the beginning of the album.
"Rotation," a lazy attempt at a half-radio single, half-stoner anthem, isn't any better. Wiz Khalifa's verse begins with four consecutive rhymes of "joints in rotation" and ends rhyming "she taking shots" with "she taking shots." Seriously. Even 2 Chainz, who is memorable if nothing else, gives a pretty unremarkable feature.
The album's closing tracks see Wale at his strongest, compensating for the mid-album reprieve. The Just Blaze-produced "88" sounds like the mature follow-up to 2009's "World Tour," crammed with allusions to Michael Jordan. "Black Heroes" is phenomenal, with Wale's rhyme schemes sharper than ever. Noting that black kids "too short for a sport" are relegated to drug dealing, Wale ends with a bang: “Or maybe this music will inspire a future mountain mover or two." That's hard to imagine with "Clappers" and "Rotation," but had the album cut out the fluff, it's certainly feasible.
On "88," Wale mentions that he's sticking with his MMG crew through it all. On "Black Heroes," Jerry Seinfeld makes an appearance and mentions a possible "Album About Nothing." Old Wale and new Wale meet. The album's bright spots are so bright that they outshine the slip-ups, and you can only imagine his potential if he tightens up his next LP to only include that new black soul he's so fond of.