Love-Hate Thing: Wales still fixated on his hurdles.s still fixated on his hurdles.
Love-Hate Thing: Wales still fixated on his hurdles.s still fixated on his hurdles.

With last year’s Folarin mixtape, it seemed like Wale had finally relaxed. In a professional arc in which art and careerism often seemed indivisible, the DMV rapper had at last completed a project that felt totally in the moment. So much for the exhale, though. His third major-label album, The Gifted, feels fussed-over even when it’s supposed to be breezy, as if the pop-rap successes of 2011’s Ambition—“Lotus Flower Bomb,” “That Way”—earned him only pressure, not wiggle room. To be fair, he sounds like he’s enjoying the job. But that’s not the same as being free.

The first third of The Gifted amounts to a cycle of self-reflection, and it’s a bit of a chore to get through, even though producers No Credit, Tone P, Stokley, and Sam Dew provide some memorable sounds. Songs such as the electro-pop cautionary tale “Vanity” (whose hook borrows the “worn-out places, worn-out faces” lines from Gary Jules’ “Mad World”) and the celebration of success “Sunshine” (which glows when it gets to ear-grabbing vocals by Stokley and Dew) are somehow not completely satisfying, as if Wale’s raps are accessories instead of counterpoints. On the latter track, he yaps a lot about “new black soul” during stretches that probably should’ve been pure music. It’s the sign of an MC who has trouble getting out of salesman mode.

The single “LoveHate Thing” suffers from similar problems; Wale’s prosaic raps (“As you reachin’ your goals/You gon’ meet you some foes”) almost get lost among the well-arranged piano-chord groove and the Christopher Cross-style hook sung by Dew. The string-heavy “Heaven’s Afternoon,” meanwhile, sounds just plain stodgy. It’s yet another bittersweet, soul-packed rap song about rising from a meager economic background; the cameo by Maybach Music Group labelmate Meek Mill and the electro-flavored coda don’t do much to set it apart.

The intensity kicks up with “Golden Salvation (Jesus Piece),” a commentary on the state of black spiritualism that includes one of the more emphatic lines on the album. Wale points at ministers who are “Preachin’ armageddon while the collection plate be circlin’ the room,” ending the verse with, “Fear is but a tomb/And gospel’s gone commercial, pray the purpose isn’t cruel.” It’s not necessarily an original sentiment, but his delivery rings true. (If you’re looking for some of Wale’s trademark pungent wordplay, he gets to it quickly in the album opener “The Curse of the Gifted.” Check it: “It’s lonely at the top/They tell me that they feelin’ me/I eat this game and shit this out/My dirty drawers got winning streaks.”)

The final two thirds of The Gifted merit repeat listens, in part because the lyrics depart further from the theme of What Wale Thinks About Himself—or at least handle it better. The warm, funky “Gullible” ruminates on the media and politics, with a solid guest appearance by Cee-Lo Green. Wale offers some jabs at the surveillance state (“Twitter and Instagram are really like middlemen”) and the march of progress (“TV killed the radio/And then the Internet slit the television’s throat”) while the Memphis-style groove implies that only partying outlasts such upheaval.

It’s also the section of the record where Wale gets around to his most natural topic: women. There isn’t anything as slyly cocky as “That Way” here, but his loverman efforts never fail to make intuitive sense. If Wale really wanted to be daring, he’d cut an entire record of this stuff.

The two versions of the single “Bad,” with its squeaky-bed sample keeping time in the background, bolster the point that he’s better when he’s bouncing lyrics off a relationship. Emotional unavailability dooms this particular one. “So it seems that we fiend what we don’t need/Got a thing for a queen who know when to leave/I ain’t about to judge you, don’t judge me,” Wale raps. The original take featuring Tiara Thomas is plaintive and seriously sultry; the remix, with a typically icy vocal by Rihanna, is more polished but not necessarily superior. In both cases, though, Wale sounds totally absorbed. (Thomas has since signed with Interscope, the label that dropped Wale after 2009’s Attention Deficit tanked commercially.)

Likewise, “Tired of Dreaming” revisits the tactic of pairing him with Maybach Music Group boss Rick Ross and a soulster; this time, it’s Ne-Yo. The track is syrupy, but it’s still got an authentic vibe. “Weave? That’s optional/’Cause my only concern is her head strong,” Wale says in describing his perfect mate. At the other extreme of the commitment spectrum, there’s the over-the-top, go-go-accented strip-club paean “Clappers.” It won’t win any poetry awards, but at least Nicki Minaj’s guest rap is sardonic: “I’m-a shake this ass till I graduate.”

With all that out of his system, Wale eventually returns to the sonic adventures that marked Folarin. “Rotation,” a slightly weird, cough syrup-paced number dominated by guest spots from 2Chainz and Wiz Khalifa, boasts a surplus of edginess. “Simple Man,” with its dark, ’90s-style beat, thematically belongs with the first third of the album (“I know the millions you gettin’ come with a billion haters”), and it could have contributed some welcome sonic contrast there.

Wale gets around to his hobbies, too: The snare-heavy, glitzy “88” extols sneakers; the title references the year Nike introduced the Air Jordan “Jumpman” logo. And the album’s outro features some back-and-forth between the rapper and now-buddy Jerry Seinfeld, who’s on board for the third installment of Wale’s Seinfeld-themed projects. It’ll be called The Album About Nothing. Let’s take it as a sign that the rapper is now entering a stretch in which he’ll do only what he really wants to do, which, theoretically, could result in far fewer songs about how tough it’s been to be Wale. After all, nobody expected him to put so much emphasis on struggle for struggle’s sake.