Stuck in a weird purgatory between mixtape circuit royalty and chart mediocrity, Wale was rescued from a noncommittal label when Rick Ross swooped in and signed him to Maybach Music Group in 2011. It gave the technical, thoughtful MC a bigger stage and a chance to stretch his legs on gold-plated beats, showcasing the subtle arrogance of his seemingly tossed-off flow next to megalomaniacal carnival barkers like Meek Mill, Gunplay, French Montana and Rozay. When his MMG debut Ambition opened at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts and eventually went gold (thanks in part to the Miguel-assisted “Lotus Flower Bomb”), it was heartening to see the public finally embracing the charismatic MC.
And now, with the release of his third album The Gifted (out ), Wale is a known quantity. He’s so mainstream, in fact, that he could build release hype on the back of the relatively boring, borderline sleepy (but ultimately popular) single “Bad.” But he still seems a bit ambivalent about his musical identity.
With “Bad,” Wale managed to unintentionally bury the lede for what the album really should sound like, with the almost criminally smooth second single, “LoveHate Thing.” A reflective but light-on-his-feet Wale spills tightly coiled couplets here, verse after verse: “Sitting in taxi cabs, where daddy roaming the streets / Seven hallelujahs, my sutana was clean.”
Wale and his production team (which features a shit ton of credits) attempt to calibrate the majority of their beats like oily grooves of tightly woven percussion, soulful vocals and cleverly constructed hooks, peppering in different sonic amalgamations along the way. When it works, The Gifted is polished but doesn’t pander, using a scrubbed up version of the Go-go beats he’s leaned on repeatedly in the past — like the magnanimous symphony of strings and Marvin Gaye-esque croons on the sample for “Heaven’s Afternoon.” That track is buoyed by a Wale power chorus that sounds both achingly sad and defiantly triumphant: “We ain’t supposed to never have nothing / We ain’t supposed to never have shit / See the growth in my rhymes / See my focus ain’t on them / Nah, at the top is just us, right.”
But when the well-worn grooves of Gifted grind against the attempts at experimentation, you can hear the smoothness curdle into disjointed grasps at “artistry,” like on the aptly titled dealer memoir “Bricks” and the seriously anharmonic cacophony of “88” (complete with an incessant Wale backing track and misused guitar squeal). The two cuts with the highest profile collaborators — “Clappers” featuring Nicki Minaj and Juicy J, “Rotation” with Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz — both step outside the easy flowing sonic palette of soul samples and silky production, with middling results. The appropriately raunchy “Clappers” makes a lot of racket with trebly percussion, a playground vocal loop and a particularly chipper Minaj, but ultimately seems like a weak stab at a club banger. The hazy cloud rap of “Rotation,” on the other hand, is too ephemeral to leave an impression, even with young enigma Travi$ Scott behind the dials attempting to make his beat work alongside MCs who sound like they were rhyming on another track entirely.
Like most hip-hop records out these days, Wale could have seriously benefitted from some editing. The amount of truly well-developed, well-executed tracks here is in the single digits, hardly warranting 16 cuts of hit-or-miss beats and (on occasion) phoned-in verses. But even with the baggage of Wale trying to work outside of his comfort zone (and getting pretty uncomfortable in the process), The Gifted still provides a handful of moments where his insouciant yet lucid flow syncs up expertly with a timeless patchwork beat of DC-inspired funk.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5