The last time we gathered to discuss a Wale album is was 2011, and the release of Ambition felt like a moment in hip-hop history, like watching DC’s prodigal son standing at rap’s crossroads. The former underground darling and hip-hop savior had stepped inside Rick Ross’ MMG power circle, and there was much gnashing of teeth from long time fans and a litany of questions surrounding Ambition.
Would MMG change Wale? Was he already changed? Had he…wait for it…sold out?
But two years later and seeing Wale embrace luxury rap and diced pineapples next to Rozay is as ordinary and unremarkable as seeing the sunrise in the east. This isn’t a “new” Wale, this is just Wale, and continuing to complain about any real or perceived change now feels as pointless as complaining about the internet. Wale is who he is, this is the reality, if you’re not used to it by now, you never will be.
The good news is that familiarity should allow us to take a clean listen to Wale’s new album, The Gifted. As much as is humanly possible without one of those Men in Black memory eraser devices, let’s try to listen to Gifted like we’d never heard Wale Folarin’s name before. And if this truly was my introduction to Wale, I’d say the man really has a thing for lush, live instrumentation paired with direct but complex lyricism. (So like Yeezus, except the exact opposite.)
It’s a style that he used on Ambition, and it returns in full here, most powerfully on "Golden Salvation." A full choir, a soaring piano line and some seriously lyrical rhymes that flow from unabashed stunting to thoughtful introspection, this is when Wale is at his best. The similar album opener, "The Curse of the Gifted," falls a little flat, he sounds oddly disinterested in his own song, but that’s not a problem on album standout "Heaven’s Afternoon." With MMG’s Meek Mill riding shotgun, this is some of that classic dope rhymes over a dope soul sample hip-hop lovers won’t be able to avoid. Throw "88" into this group and you've got a solid album…
…but Wale didn’t stop there. He spends the rest of the album ensuring he crosses off everything on the “Make a hit album” checklist, and now that he’s got "Lotus Flower Bomb" to his credit, he can’t help but take another shot at rap/pop/r&B crossover magic. The "Bad (Remix)," which for the album’s purposes has effectively replaced the original bad, might just find its way to a radio near you solely on the strength of a Rihanna hook, but otherwise, it’s a frankly unremarkable song. Switch out Wale here with a host of rappers, and it wouldn't sound much different, and the same can be said of the Ne-Yo assisted "Tired of Dreaming." By contrast, "Gullible"’s a much more interesting selection; there aren't many who would use a chorus from a certified hitmaker like CeeLo to talk about social ills, give Wale credit where credit’s due.
He’s still not done circling the bases though. Having already covered “intricate lyricist” and “hit single relationship rapper” territory, for the last third of The Gifted he turns to the streets, and here’s where the album falters. "Rotation" has an appropriately hypnotic beat, but it feels more like a song he felt like he should make, not something he was genuinely inspired by. I feel the same way by "Clappers," the album’s obligatory strip club anthem, and while "Bricks" has some true depth, hearing Yo Gotti’s verse is only a reminder of what street rap can more powerfully sound like.
For the record, I’m not interested in something as cliché as wanting Wale to only make “conscious” records. If he can make a booty-shaking anthem as good as "Pop That," I’ll take it. But the truth is bangers just aren't his strength, and what’s wrong with wanting to hear someone at their strongest?
Ultimately though, as much as I try to focus on the present and forget about the past, listening to The Gifted sounds like listening to an artist who still doesn't really know who they are as an artist. More than any of his peers—Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick, etc.—Wale doesn't have a distinctive sound. Call it the blessing and curse of true talent. When you’re dope enough to sound dope rhyming on everything, you end up rhyming over everything. But the cost of that versatility is focus.
The Gifted is a collection of tracks from an unarguably talented emcee, but the point at which a collection of music becomes an album, a singular work with a focus and unity strong enough to truly make an impact, Wale still hasn't reached that point. If Wale goes down in hip-hop history as a gifted emcee who also made some hit songs, there are a million rappers who would kill for those stats. But if he wants to go down as one of the GOATs, he still needs that classic album, that Ready to Die, that GKMC. Maybe he’ll get there, maybe he won’t. In the meantime, we’re left with a quality album, and I get to say that far too rarely to take it for granted.