Even with the success of his last album, memories of past defeats still haunt Wale.
"Wale wouldn't have had it any other way," Kleiman says. "It wouldn't have mattered what anybody said. Obama could have called him and said, 'Take Tiara Thomas off the record,' and he wouldn't have done it."
Elsewhere on "The Gifted," Wale creates a soundscape more inspired by '90s R&B; cooing hooks from Mint Condition's Stokley Williams are weaved throughout. Like on Wale's early mixtape work, there are hints of his hometown's signature go-go funk: Cowbells clang and horns blow on several tracks, and there are lush musical breakdowns on songs like "Sunshine" and "Heaven in the Afternoon." The second single, "LoveHate Thing," recalls the contemplative soul of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" with moody piano chords, tempered guitar licks and falsetto crooning from singer Sam Dew. Wale, meanwhile, skillfully balances swipes at naysayers with a look at the bigger picture. "I'm trying to redefine the culture," he raps, his signature rapid-fire rhyme patterns as nimble as ever.
"I know what I'm doing in the studio now," Wale says of his approach on "The Gifted." "Before, I just knew how to rap. Now I know how to construct a song and make my music have emotions."
Although Wale initially eschewed big names for "Bad," he takes advantage of his sizable Rolodex with all-star appearances elsewhere on the album, from Rihanna (who's expertly placed on the "Bad" remix), a lady-pimping Minaj on "Clappers" and the smoked-out twosome of Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz on "Rotation."
But Wale says "The Gifted" doesn't have the commercial trappings that the hit lead single and the album's A-list collaborators might suggest. "I'm just trying to challenge consumers," he says. "Don't be corny and buy records off the single. Enjoy a musical experience that isn't forced, that isn't trying to insult your intelligence-like, 'This is the club record, this is the girls song.' Don't try to put it in a box, because I don't belong in a box. I just wrote music, man-just enjoy it."
According to Wale, Ross certainly is. "Ross is excited about it. He hasn't been to sleep yet," Wale says with a laugh. "He keeps texting me."
Atlantic seems charged up as well. Album promotion will stand mostly on the legs of a grass-roots drive, VP of marketing Shari Bryant says. "We want this campaign to resonate among everyday people," she says. The whole idea is that everybody is gifted in their own way." To that end, Wale is holding contests for "gifted" artists to open for him at three release-week concerts in D.C., New York and Philadelphia. He'll then embark on a national tour this fall.
Wale will also benefit from his endorsement deal with Skull Candy headphones, and the premiere of his own WRKNG Title line of knit hats out this fall (its website just launched). It's actually a relatively lightweight endorsement portfolio, considering he's a stylish rapper prone to dropping lines about Air Jordan and Nike sneakers whenever possible. There's even an album cut named "88," a shout-out to the year Nike introduced the iconic Jordan "Jumpman" logo. And both Ross and fellow Maybach Music Group signee Meek Mill have signed more prominent endorsement deals in the past (with Reebok and Puma, respectively).
"I've made Nike much money in my career," says Wale, who's wearing black Jordans and oversize Mars Blackmon-inspired glasses. "But I want to be consistent with my brand and direction: I don't want to be advertising with bubble gum or something like that."
"Nike's very supportive of him," Kleiman says. "We are working on some things to elevate that relationship."
In the meantime, Wale is already working on his next disc, "The Album About Nothing," a third installment of his "Seinfeld" series. He's three studio sessions deep with Jerry Seinfeld, and hopes to have other key cast members from the show participate. Longtime fans of Wale are delighted-including Ross. "I'm excited to see how it's going to play out," Ross says. "The way Wale is telling me about it, it sounds like it's going to be a fuckin' audio drama. That's what the game needs."
Somehow, between finishing up and then promoting and touring for The Gifted, Wale plans to release "The Album About Nothing" before the end of the year. Inevitably, there will be many more sleepless nights and unsatisfying catnaps in his future.
"I look at myself like a professional: I just get up and work," Wale says. "I just get up and work way more than a lot of other rappers. I literally go to work every day and try to record every day that I'm not on the road. It's too much-but I get good results."