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Wale -- 'The Gifted' (Maybach Music Group/Atlantic)( Handout )
RATING: *** out of 4
Wale's third album, "The Gifted," is not a hip-hop game changer, but it is a game changer for the 28-year-old rapper -- not in the sense that it will make him a superstar but in that he finally sounds confident and comfortable as a musician.
Or at least as comfortable as Wale can allow himself to be. He's still a petulant worrier too concerned about everyone's opinion of him, but he's now expressing those thoughts in a way that sounds true to him.
The best moments on "The Gifted" sound like nothing found on a major-label rap album in 2013. "LoveHate Thing," a breezy single sonically inspired by Marvin Gaye, details Wale's up-and-down relationship with his birthplace, Washington D.C. He remains the biggest rap star in a go-go-obsessed city that was slow to embrace him. His passion -- both love and hate -- for his home makes for his most compelling topic. "Sunshine" sounds sunnier than its title, with its marvelous-sounding backdrop for Wale's brags about "packin' out 9:30," a reference to the D.C. venue.
Wale has a strong fan base because he portrays a rapper who thinks harder than his peers about everything: fame, love, women and personal struggle. For listeners exhausted by Top 40 party-rap, he's a welcomed respite. As a lyricist and songwriter, his over-thinking works in some places ("Heaven's Afternoon") and falls flat in others ("Golden Salvation," a track written from the perspective of Jesus that sounds like the type of misguided concept song Nas used to make). He has a lot to say, and he's still figuring out the most effective way to present it all.
As a rapper, his slippery flow can be impressive, especially to those who put a high premium on the craft of stringing together lines (closer "Black Heroes" is an exercise in breath-control). But he's rarely economical. A line like "Although I'm never slippin' like student parent permission" is meant to display wordplay, but it's too clunky to resonate.
Still, "The Gifted" is Wale's best album by a wide margin. His 2009 flop of a debut "Attention Deficit" sounded as if label executives constructed it. On 2011's "Ambition," we heard his growing pains while assimilating to Rick Ross' flashy Maybach Music Group. But here, Wale finally seems to have figured out his lane as an artist. There's room for improvement -- bragging less about rare sneakers would be a good start -- but at least Wale finally sounds sure footed. -- Wesley Case