Wale simply sounds better on Free Lunch. Throughout the Washington D.C. native’s latest EP, an atmosphere of invigoration pervades its five choice cuts of lyrical hip-hop addressing topics as local as the shooting death of 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson in Clay Terrace (in Northeast Washington D.C.) two months ago, to ones as universal as romantic longing. He’s brought baggage but packed light, his bars ferociously biting when necessary and intimately tender when not.
As his first release since his return to Warner Bros. Records, which had been Maybach Music Group’s preferred label partner at the start of Wale’s tenure there before it moved to Atlantic in 2012, Free Lunch marks the rapper’s third consecutive EP in 2018, following March’s It’s Complicated and May’s Self Promotion. It also happens to be the best of the bunch, arriving at the tail end of hip-hop’s most tumultuous summer in years in time to satisfy those bored of Drake and unimpressed by Travis.
While just about every contemporary rap artist worth mentioning spent the past few sweltering months competing and feuding with new albums in tow, Wale’s homecoming by way of his own Every Blue Moon imprint finds him playing to his strengths. Opener “Dummies” finds him spitting a revival over a bombastic beat worthy of The Gifted, while on “My Boy,” he trades braggadocious freestyle bars with North Carolina’s own J. Cole, with whom he had a brief if buzzworthy falling out after the pointedly poignant “False Prophets” diss and his speedy “Groundhog Day” response.
Even with hits under his belt as both a lead and featured artist, Wale’s recording career has always largely felt disorganized and mismanaged, an innately talented artist out of place in the major label system. Roughly a decade ago, he emerged from the mixtape circuit as if he were the DMV’s response to Kanye West with “Nike Boots,” released on the same Allido imprint that had previously signed Rhymefest and dropping mere months after the genre-testing and game-changing smash Graduation. Like that eclectic full-length, Wale’s proper album debut Attention Deficit for Interscope two years later promised further mainstream redemption for backpack rap. Instead, as the negging Ye namecheck on opener “Triumph” foreshadowed, the record failed to find an audience with its onerous pop-leaning production from the hip likes of Mark Ronson and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek and diverse features ranging from Bun B to Lady Gaga.
Subsequently, as MMG’s most unexpected signee, Wale came off a tad embittered and defensively shallow on 2011’s Ambition, which included G.O.O.D. boys DJ Toomp, Kid Cudi, and a fresh-faced Big Sean. The record yielded a genuine Hot 100 hit in the Miguel-infused “Lotus Flower Bomb,” albeit at the cost of much of his mixtape-bred credibility. Under Rick Ross’ bejeweled pinky, he hadn’t lost his ability to rhyme with the best of them, but his spark seemed snuffed out under the album’s slight and sometimes sexist content. Though drowning in guests, the superior 2013 sequel and creative peak The Gifted touched a street soul nerve, from the corner bodega blues of “LoveHateThing” to the organic boasts of the late banger “88” With a title that encapsulated Wale’s above average skills, it balanced the MMG swagger with post-conscious lyricism in a manner not entirely unlike Cole’s Born Sinner, which came out a week prior. Regrettably, he hadn’t abandoned the strip club male gaze entirely, as evidenced by the almost uncharacteristic “Clappers,” a “Dance (A$$)” attempt so unsubtle that it even featured Sean Don’s collaborator Nicki Minaj. At its best, however, that unapologetic male sexuality gave us the double-platinum novelty single “Bed,” replete with squeaky bed springs.
At this stage in Wale’s career, his music has a core audience rooting for him and a wider one happy to check on him.
Continuing a long-running Seinfeld bit that stretched back to his underground days, he cozied up unironically to Jerry himself and made cringe-worthy joke clips with Larry King around the inevitable 2015 release of The Album About Nothing. That may have helped it debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, though its first week sales ran close to 60,000 fewer units than his first chart-topper The Gifted as well as Ambition. Chalk that up to the streaming era’s ascent, perhaps, but then 2017’s globalization grab bag Shine bricked with the same kind of opening frame figures as the similarly disorganized Attention Deficit. In spite of the sample-dependent platinum single “My PYT,” Wale appeared on the decline as did the whole MMG enterprise, with the creatively quagmired Rozay and legally embattled Meek Mill.
When it comes to rehabilitating the rapper’s damaged and blurry image, less may be more. The shift post-Atlantic to an apparently quarterly short release model at Warner Bros. seems a reaction not just to the issues around Shine but of his uneven long-player discography. Album rollouts, even those dropped by surprise on an unsuspecting fan base, typically require months of internal planning and ongoing expectation management. Conversely, EPs arrive without the rigmarole and stakes of longer projects, framed instead as gifts for fans and snapshots of artistic process rather than grand endeavors meant for intense critical scrutiny. Furthermore, while in previous years the branded use of commercial mixtapes in lieu of albums has been the rap industry wave, 2018 has been all about EPs, from one-offs by trap notables like Young Dolph and Young Thug to G.O.O.D. Music’s stretch of seven-song summer minis executive produced by West.
An early entry in the trend, It’s Complicated appeared at the tail end of winter, giving its Jacquees-featuring highlight “Black Bonnie” some room before dropping a generation-jumping music video mid-summer. Preceded by February’s like-minded loosie “All Star Break Up,” the 12 minute EP’s cohesive R&B tempos and templates lengthened its shelf life, a far cry from the kitchen sink clutter of Shine. When Self Promotion came months later, it shifted the tone towards the aggressive, allowing Wale a pre-fight platform to address racial injustice on “Salary Kaep” and throw his weight behind punching Nazis on the scratchtastic “Body Body Body (Freestyle).” Though only four songs long, it does a great deal of good in that time. Thus, Wale’s adoption of the format showcases its relatively low risk while giving listeners something manageable to focus on.
Nobody saw Free Lunch coming that hadn’t already been impressed by either It’s Complicated or Self Promotion. At this stage in Wale’s career, particularly with the shedding of an assuredly unhappy label relationship in favor of a fresh start, his music has a core audience rooting for him and a wider one happy to check on him. From his so-called discovery by Ronson to his efforts for Ross, the twin weights of co-sign and commercialization repeatedly hindered his potential and muddled his mastery. Containing his strongest and most enjoyable material since The Gifted, these EPs aren’t about sales so much as they’re about selling him, the product being the artist rather than the package. Given Wale’s relentless axe grinding over what he perceives as unfair portrayal by the music media, he’s right to step away for a minute from big releases that his critics will use against him, away from the quantitative tyranny of streaming numbers and chart positions that reduce his creative instincts to wins and losses.
With little to gain from trying to please those who drew their conclusions years ago, Wale’s Free Lunch defies the intrinsic no-such-thing irony of its title, actually delivering the undeliverable by letting his listeners dine on him. With new standout songs both informed and made better by the lessons of his prior discography, one can’t help but wonder if this would-be career renaissance man might be on the verge of a renaissance of his own.