Wale's recording career to date has had an amphibious feel of sorts. In 2009, when the Washington, D.C. rapper was signed to Interscope, he put out a very Interscope debut, complete with a Lady Gaga feature. 2011's Ambition – his follow-up after hopping over to Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group – seemed like a Rick Ross album, only with more references to Nikes and obscure NBA players. Sure, it sold well, but much of it could've been pieced together by any of the bosses in the MMG factory. But Wale's third album is different. The Gifted – due out on June 25th – is the first one to feel like Wale himself masterminded it.
At a private preview held at the Atlantic offices last week, MMG's A&R Dallas Martin introduced the project by noting Wale's intention to recall his D.C. roots, citing late hometown hero Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go. Read on for a track-by-track preview of the album's highlights. Other notable tracks include "Hella," with YG and Dom Kennedy, which has the feeling of Beyonce's "Party" set on West Coast Customs shocks; "Sunshine," a Spanish Harlem-tinged number that involves cowbell; and the outro, where Wale says, sneering, "Where your keys at, playboy? I slang hyperboles, playboy."
"Bad (Remix)" feat. Rihanna
This is a pretty big deal. Rihanna has never gotten on a rap remix, to our knowledge. We were only previewed the first hook and first verse of this new version of Wale's inescapable single; there are high expectations for this song, and Martin was given strict orders not to play any further. Rihanna ups original guest vocalist Tiara Thomas' ante and proceeds to tear down the place. She injects this crazy/beautiful combination of sadness and sexiness that only Rih can do, singing, confidently, "Hood girls just want a real n***a." (On the original version, Wale said, "Hood girls want a smart n***a"; point, counterpoint.) Clean up your apartment, this song will be around all summer.
The album's second single is all finger snaps and a capella vocal pops, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye or "Beijo" by Earth, Wind & Fire. (Teasing its release, Wale has continually tweeted about "#NewBlackSoul.") It feels like he painted the song in watercolors, as he talks about what fame does to a person: The words "goals," "celebrate" and "potential" all come up within one verse, but so does "I lost a lot of friends, and they ain't e'en dead." (More positively, Wale goes on to say, "Champagne, I'm gonna spill it until we all fill up.")
"Clappers" feat. Juicy J and Nicki Minaj
This song feels like driving on potholes, only more pleasurable, more bounce. If you didn't or couldn't guess, it's intended for the clubs as an ode to strippers. (Emily Dickinson, take note.) The anthem samples EU's "Da Butt," and the live drums feel like they were recorded somewhere between RFK Stadium (the D.C. sporting venue) and Stadium (the D.C. gentleman's club). Juicy J does a Juicy J-ish verse, but the real star of this song is Nicki, who steals the show in 12 bars: "Shout out to the cellulite."
"Heaven in the Afternoon" feat. Meek Mill
"Born to lose, built to win," Wale says to open, taking the title of a Juelz Santana album that may or may not ever come out. This track – a lush, orchestral vision originally released in December on a whim – closes with Wale trading bars with Meek, à la Jadakiss and Styles P. "Meek and Wale are on a ton of tracks together, so we needed to figure out ways to make new sounds, to make each song sound different," Martin said at the listening session. "This was one way of doing that." The snares hit like elbows, hard and pointed. The hook goes "We ain't 'posed to never have nothin', we ain't never 'posed to never have shit." (Now that they're here, of course, Wale says: "All we need is Keisha, all we need is Becky / All we need is God, and Fed-free fetti.") Meek Mill says he's being chased by RICO, and that he's "got a billion in whips." There's also the first of two mentions of Drake's "Started from the Bottom."
The idea is a song about Michael Jordan in 1988: Wale sees that as the first time MJ was really on top of the world. Tellingly, Wale reportedly asked producer Just Blaze to give him the feeling of "those old Dipset records." He delivered: The song is at times grinding, others soaring. (There's a bit of sacrilege in making a New York record about Michael Jordan, but oh well.) Of course, it wouldn't be a Wale song if it didn't have a bunch of shoe references: "I bought 3's for the whole team," he says, with name-checks of Carolina blues, black and reds, and Space Jams. One of the closing lines is, "And when I'm 45, I do it like I'm 23." Ha.
"Rotation" feat. 2 Chainz and Wiz Khalifa
"Fly a blunt, it's in rotation . . . it's in rotation." This song feels like a nap, except it's really catchy. Damn you, stoners! (There are some lazy moments: Wiz makes sure to note his preference for joints, not blunts. This ground has been well-covered before.) Wale, interestingly, puts himself on a (cough) higher level: "Made millions with Shawn Corey" and "I won't be on til I see Sean Combs / 'Sup, Puff, ha." No one has ever accused Wale of lacking self-confidence.