Jonah Bromwich is personally invested.
That Wale has sold out is indisputable. He was a prime example of the first wave of blog rappers (Kid Cudi, J. Cole, B.O.B. etc). and one of the first post-Kanye artists to figure out what to talk about now that any topic was acceptable. He put out two excellent mixtapes, 100 Miles and Running and Mixtape About Nothing, which together, defined a wonderful new talent, an adroit DC rapper with exotic taste in beats and normal taste in television shows. Wale was smart, had subject matter and could switch up his flow with the ease of an athlete.
And then he sold out. As banal as this expression is, it best captures what Wale did, which was to essentially change his style and persona in exchange for the promise of more money. It started with a Lady Gaga appearance on a badly compromised debut album and culminated when Wale took up the “leering douche” slot in Rick Ross’s crew of litter-bearers, and was assigned the two singles “Miami Nights,” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” The thoughtful cheerful dude he had seemed to be disappeared completely. And the people who had been rooting for him, particularly the people from DC, who couldn’t believe that he had lost his GoGo backing, that he had stopped touring with UCB, even after they MADE his live show, felt betrayed. It was bad. It was so bad that any kind of betrayal just reminded me of Wale. When Lebron left Cleveland, for instance, I began to unconsciously link him to Wale in my mind, and grew to hate the two of them and their balmy Miami nights.
But as much as I still loathe the Heat (mostly because my best friend hopped on their bandwagon after the decision and has never looked back), I really don’t have it in me to hate Lebron anymore. And similarly, I’m tired of being pissed about Wale’s turn. Who cares? What kind of weird grudge is it when one grown man is actually angry at another, a stranger, for nigh on four years?
That was my attitude going into The Gifted. And it corresponds nicely with an album on which a gleam of Wale’s old persona shines through.
There’s a self-awareness here that wasn’t present when Wale became the Spencer Pratt of rap a few years back, particularly on the first set of tracks. “The Curse of the Gifted.” As obnoxious as that title is, it acknowledges that the hate for Wale has become near universal. But rather than lash out like the spoiled brat that he’s recently seeme, Wale points fans to something indisputable: his hustle. It’s a subtle, savvy move to stake your reputation on longevity, rather than merely whining about the haters for the umpteenth time. And it’s accompanied by several other sympathetic lyrics: an admission of “character issues” on “Sunshine,” a strong desire to recapture his place in the DMV on “LoveHateThing” and a strong rappity rap track with Meek Mill which shows the two of the most technical rappers on MMG at their best.
The most important breakthrough of all on The Gifted is the music. Breaking away from the MMG template is Wale’s boldest, most independent move since making a Seinfeld mix tape. He sounds good over warm soul music and these tracks are reminiscent of the summery tracks from 100 Miles and Running.
I don’t think that any of this means that Wale is back gunning for a Top 5 slot. The last few years have seen his flaws writ large and they’re hard to ignore when they pop up here. He’s still absurdly self- conscious, fully aware of what people think of him and very concerned about it. He’s still weird about women. He still can’t pull off a traditional pop song and attempts to do so here (“Bad,” “Tired of Dreaming,” are as odious as ever. But he’s also nostalgic and self-conscious about where he is, who he was, and who he’s been recently.
All of which is exciting for fans, particularly in the light of the fact that Wale has another album coming out in a couple of months. It’s going to be a GoGo record and is called the Album About Nothing. And while it’s absolutely ridiculous and vaguely pathetic to try to recapture fans’ love by referencing the album that made you famous, there are reasons to be excited. Though The Gifted is far from great, it is the first record since 2008 that suggests Wale might be making his way back home.