Kanye West spends most of Yeezus struggling with the same character crises that have plagued him since his debut, making hay of his inability to find a happy medium between espousing social consciousness and celebrating empty consumerism. It’s a common hip-hop predicament, the primal urge of self-aggrandizing flash clashing with the deeper need to communicate a constructive political message, and one that’s gained poignancy as rap’s activist branch has continued to wither. This means that effusive young talents like Wale are left without a movement to suit their specific voices, making it even more of a challenge to develop a thoughtful, coherent persona in an increasingly narrow, competitive industry. With The Gifted, his second album for Maybach Music Group, Wale continues to struggle to define himself, which proves even more difficult on a label dominated by broad caricatures.
The typical Wale verse involves a boast immediately undercut by a rationalization, or one that contains its own effacement within it; it’s fitting that The Gifted opens with a skit in which some friends discover, then immediately deface, a statue of the rapper. He uses this stuttering, recursive approach to develop a voice that’s winkingly humble and faintly neurotic, with songs that slowly reveal consistent themes. This leads to tracks like “Bricks,” which swings from a basic chronicle of street slinging to the admission that the rapper never had any actual involvement in drug sales, then on to an analysis of the pressures that force many aspiring rappers to start dealing as a sort of résumé-building activity. It’s a gradual, bricklaying method that takes entire songs to fall into place, for which reason Wale doesn’t do especially well on guest verses. He’s also still awkward among his label-mates, since his complicated, close-listening idiom clashes with that of someone like Rick Ross, who works off rapid-fire accretion of mountains of cartoon imagery, or Meek Mill, who belts out purple tales of death and disorder, both rappers embodying black-and-white views of ghetto life that don’t jibe with Wale’s more realistic, nuanced approach.
The further issue is that Wale seems caught up in the same type of portfolio diversification that’s likely caused Maybach to recruit this would-be black sheep. This means that, after a strong first half, dotted with buoyant, brassy tracks like “Sunshine” and the Cee-Lo-backed “Gullible,” Wale surrenders to a boilerplate back half full of pandering radio bait more in line with the baroque production style common with the rest of the Maybach stable. These tracks find him either overwhelmed by flashier guests, like the dominating Nicki Minaj appearance which upends the woeful booty anthem “Clappers,” or simply out of place, as with his collision with Ross and Ne-Yo on “Tired of Dreaming.”
The sharp divide between these two halves identifies the main problems for an artist like Wale, who’s bounced around a lot in the last few years, never coming close to the greatness of his breakthrough The Mixtape About Nothing. Integrating Seinfeld sound clips into knotty, digressive explorations of the rapper’s own obsessions and concerns, that mixtape felt like something fresh and more cohesive than anything he’s released since. When he plays to his strengths on The Gifted, the results are impressive, but more mass-market tracks leave him sounding unoriginal and anonymous. A last-minute spot comes via Jerry Seinfeld, who weirdly shows up out of nowhere to cap off closer “Black Heroes.” This bumper acts as a teaser for his and Wale’s supposed impending collaboration, on the forthcoming Album About Nothing, a sure-to-be-odd conceptual lark that, with any luck, will give this budding talent a chance to delve back into his own eccentric interests and fortify his identity in the process.