Music, television, and sports; these are a few of Wale’s favorite things. And speaking of the latter, the rapper’s career thus far most resembles that of the fresh-faced NFL quarterback than the legacy of John Coltrane. Wale first garnered major attention for himself with the release of The Mixtape About Nothing, a clever Seinfeld themed tape in which the rapper mostly criticized the unimaginative world of mainstream hip-hop. The tape, and its follow-up More About Nothing were critically acclaimed, but similarly to the mild viewer response Seinfeld received in its early seasons, Wale has had a difficult time transitioning to an official position atop hip hop’s pantheon. His highly anticipated debut album, Attention Deficit, showed all the marks of a player containing the talent to be a potential superstar, but ultimately unsure of himself, leading to terrible decision-making in the pocket. Like a young quarterback eager to live up the billion-dollar contract he signed, Wale spread himself dry attempting to showcase his musical versatility rather than master any particular skill-set. Wale began in hip hop purgatory, no doubt a great lyricist but lacking an identity. As is often the case with rappers, Wale’s first album was disappointing in comparison to his critically acclaimed mixtapes. The album wasn’t a complete wash by any means, with quality tracks like “Beautiful Bliss,” “Diary,” “Chillin,” to accompany Wale’s duller moments. But these were mere notches in the ‘W’ column rather than triumphant Robert-Griffin-III-in-his-opening-day-against-the-New-Orleans-Saints statements fans knew the DC native was capable of.
Things took a turn for the better when Wale made one of the more publicized hip-hop moves in recent memory by literally taking his talents to the port of Miami, signing with Rick Ross’ label Maybach Music. Wale amassed a whole new legion of fans with his brilliant lyrical performance on MMG’s Self Made Vol. 1. Although hype inevitably increased, Wale’s Ambition was only a slight improvement from his first effort. During his sophomore season, Wale had stretches of brilliance, such as “Don’t Hold Your Applause,” “So Focused,” “Legendary” and “Ambition.” However, his successes were weighed down by his ehhhh performances, like “Double M Genius,” “Miami Nights,” and “Illest Bitch,” which were further weighed down by the god-awful, 5-interception-benched-by-4th-quarter performances like “Slight Work.” When the smoke cleared from Ambition, fans were left with a messy hodgepodge of greatness, ehhh-ness, and good ol’ fashioned ridiculousness. Once Wale announced the release date for The Gifted, many wondered aloud whether he would finally be able to construct an album that sparked all the way through.
From day one of his promotional campaign, Wale was intent on convincing the world of his album’s magnitude. Before the release of The Gifted, Wale compiled various interviews from legendary music, entertainment, and sports figures the world over in a Youtube series called “The Gifted.” Wale even elected to release the album on June 25, an homage to the release of Jay’s Reasonable Doubt album back in 1996. No doubt, heavy Nikes to fill. Regarding his intentions for the album, Wale stated: “I just wanna show range. I proved a lot to my peers and to myself and to my fans so I just wanna take it back to something a little more exciting. When the music was most exciting to me. Kinda like when I was in my best pocket…Just for being swarmed in my own stuff and doing Self Made and all those things. I haven’t had an opportunity to stand on my own sonically as an artist as much as I would like. This new project I’m working on is definitely allowing me to do that.”
With the The Gifted, Wale has finally come into his own as not just an emcee, but an artist as well. For the duration of the album, Wale is comfortable in the pocket, and although there are still a few songs that would cause havoc for your fantasy league (“Clappers”), by far the worst thing about the The Gifted is the album cover. Most tracks are approached with a sort of savage energy, as if Wale is anxious to throw his detractors to the lions, Ndamukong Suh style. Take for instance “Heaven’s Afternoon, where friendly rivalry abounds as Wale and label-mate Meek Mill try to lyrically outperform each other on the track. Even though Meek does a respectable job, Wale is dynamic. Instead of merely spitting neat little packaged metaphors, Wale uses his Air Jordan 3s to implant himself feet-first in his rhymes, so that the song’s content and others on the album come across as personally relevant to the rapper. The album’s songs spark because they are marked by a confessional aura, sounding as if they came from a deeply personal place, such as “Golden Salvation (Jesus Piece).” Sustained by the chapel drums and specks of piano by producer Lee Major, Wale spits some of the most potent poetry of his career in three equally charged verses about how people use pseudo-faith to mask their materialistic desires rather thank seek spiritual serenity:
Fears but a tool
And Gospel gone commercial pray the purpose isn’t cruel
And the workers in the pulpit want they blessings to improve
And they stone me on the cross and niggas stone me for the ooh’s
And the ahh’s foolish
What am I who are ya
I’m coming down from the sky cause niggas keep praying to shine
Wale, “Golden Salvation” (Jesus Piece)
Wale expertly combines his various personas so that the socially conscious prophet, the baller, and the lady killer all seem organic productions instead contrived failures. Most of the album abounds in the ambiance of Sunday Morning church service, such as “Lovehate Thing,” featuring newcomer Sam Dew and a sample from fellow D.C. native Marvin Gaye. Speaking of features, Rihanna’s presence on the remix of “Bad” is a little too predictable, and in her obvious mimicry of new artist Tiarra Thomas, Rihanna and the track as a whole is a sorry excuse for the original. Wale’s demeanor on the track suggests that he is purely targeting radio (a fate he avoids with most of the album’s material), rather than fresh in the throes of an introspective confession about bad girls, which, along with Thomas’ amazing vocals and of course, the bed-squeaking, is the brilliance of “Bad.” On that note, the few missteps of The Gifted occur when the rapper tries to hard to attain radio glory, such as “Clappers” and “Tired of Dreaming.” Wale is much more effective when he concentrates purely on crafting good songs, like “Vanity,” “Gullible,” and “Bricks.” In the latter, “bricks” is not just a slang term for cocaine, but a metaphor for what kids with dreary life possibilities build their escapist dreams upon: music and sports. The finale of Wale’s second verse is constructed exponentially, which each idea building upon the last…like bricks.
From a brick, to a stone, tryna feed for my homie
When the powder, turn to power, and the power turn to dough
Turning head with yo whip, is it worth what you did?
If a brick is a brick from a brick you can build
From a brick to a stone, make a fiend for a homie
Turn ? into 4, turn reef to a home
Turn the powder, into power, and the power turn to hoes
If a brick is a brick, to a brick you can grow
Much has been made of the multitude of features on the record. But unlike French Montana’s album, where overwhelming guest spots are in actuality a grisly cover-up operation for a possibly tone-deaf rapper severely lacking talent, Wale’s presence is not lulled into musical irrelevancy by his extended company. Once again quarterbackin’, the rapper pilots the stage, such as “Rotation,” featuring Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz. The high-level lyricism we have come to expect of Wale on mixtapes fuses with a memorable hook. Wale’s elevated talent allows him to dance lyrical circles around his guests, repeatedly rotating his flow to mimic the sway of the song. The distinction is clear: Wale is able to play multiple positions while his competition stick to the same rehashed rhyme schemes that convinced the world to pay attention to them in the first place:
Like a nigga out the globe, with a nigga throwed,
Like a cornerback in the flat, nigga in the zone
Like an ornament on a tree, home in the tree;
How you gonna eat? Carnivores need beef; Well I need Beats
“88” is a very creative track that will probably fly over the heads of anyone unfamiliar with the term sneakerhead. Wale uses a lot of clever references to sports and sports sneakers that would be difficult to fully grasp if you have not previously devoted an ungodly amount of time to the finding and purchasing of expensive sneakers. Still, one of Wale’s strong-points is his ability to be versatile, and like an episode of The Sopranos, you can garner the basic meaning of his words without understanding the full thematic significance.
It’s a shame that The Gifted may not receive the level of acclaim it deserves, primarily due to the fact that three other major releases (J.Cole, Kanye West, Jay-Z) come within weeks of the album. Nevertheless, the argument can be made that Wale’s project is the best in terms of quality, cohesion, and replay value. While much of the major reviews of The Gifted are so far positive, some are critical of Wale’s failure to branch out sonically, like Yeezus accomplishes two-fold. However, if Wale hopes to have long-lasting success in the music world, he must first master his immediate post. From beginning to end, The Gifted makes a legitimate case that Wale is in tune with what makes him a memorable player in this game, and has tweaked the weaknesses of his arsenal. Towards the end of The Gifted, after a poignant poetic display by Wale about the absence of Black heroes, Jerry Seinfeld makes a hilarious appearance as himself, speculating about a future Album About Nothing. We can only hope that Wale will build upon this moment, and provide the fans with a classic album about nothing.