The Album About Nothing
Features: Usher, SZA, J. Cole, Jeremih
Production: DJ Dahi, JGrammBeats, Jake One, Best Kept Secret, No Credit, Osinachi
The concept in itself is almost nonsensical. To postulate the idea of crafting an entire LP around his famed “nothing” concept–from which he’s 5 years removed–while scores of pre-MMG Wale fans on Twitter and Instagram accuse the DMV native of sacrificing his artistic integrity for commercial success, is a daring idea. Some would say misguided. Regardless, coming off his first #1 album and a well-received December mixtape—the DJ A-Trak-helmed Festivus–the pressure was on Wale to deliver, and considering his friend and inspiration, Jerry Seinfeld, would be joining him for the third installment of his About Nothing trilogy, the stakes were even higher.
When it’s all said and done, Wale will probably have one of the higher rated mixtape catalogs in rap history. From his early work–100 Miles & Running, Paint A Picture–to the tape that landed him national attention and a deal with Interscope, The Mixtape About Nothing, on to his post-Interscope tapes–More About Nothing, Eleven One Eleven, Folarin–Wale has consistently delivered when there’s no barcode involved. Often, his biggest records are merely re-mastered versions of mixtape standouts (“Nike Boots”, “That Way”, “Bad”, “Girls On Drugs” all first appeared on mixtapes). However, that same consistency can’t always be found in his LP lineup. Attention Deficit was a suitable debut whose biggest criticism was Wale’s inability to provide an anchor hit, a ship he aimed to right on his sophomore, Ambition, in excess. “Lotus Flower Bomb” provided Wale his first true hit–a much needed one, in hindsight–but the rest of the album was littered with obvious attempts at radio prowess, which limited the impact of its non-R&B driven records, “Legendary,” “Chain Music.”
The Gifted netted Folarin his first #1 album, but only half of it felt like his. Early cuts like “LoveHate Thing,” “Sunshine,” “Heaven’s Afternoon” and “Golden Salvation” proved that when he took a little risk, and strayed from the formula he’d followed for most of his previous album, Wale could dodge the sonic ubiquity that’s left critics unable to label him elite without a trailing “but…”. However, the second half of Gifted felt like Wale had betrayed his own instincts and fallen once again for his own guilty pleasure: the big-name collab, radio-ready banger. 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Juicy J and Rihanna packed out a short stretch of Wale’s 3rd LP, turning what began as an intriguing voyage into a “best guest feature” pissing contest.
The most frustrating part of Wale’s album missteps is probably the fact that, unlike most, he’s more often than not better off on his own. He’s proved over the years that his talents, bar-for-bar, are matched by few, and his most flawlessly executed song concepts come without help, be it an album (“Legendary”) or a mixtape (“Friends ‘N’ Strangers”). To his credit, it was a tragic start to his major label career that set Wale down this path. Attention Deficit was overwhelmingly undershipped by Interscope, and just months after its release, Wale had nothing but an embarrassing sales mark and an aborted tenure at the house Jimmy Iovine built to show for his efforts. During a 2013 interview with Dallas Penn and Combat Jack on The Combat Jack Show, Penn suggested that Wale was “left for dead” by the industry, and Wale responded with a narrative that sounded very much like he wrote several records to prove his worth, not necessarily because they were what he wanted to make. It’s an aspect of his career that he’s acutely aware of. On the second song of this new album, “The Helium Balloon,” he spends much of the second verse justifying some of his more pandering work. “Came through with Ross writing bangers for y’all/but I ain’t lose my content.” It’s that very notion–that he had to make those songs in order to be accepted by his commercial fanbase–that’s developed a set of habits some of today’s highest selling artists (J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West) are working to break. He was programmed to beat the system, and understandably so, but Folarin knew as much as anybody that The Album About Nothing had to be the project to interrupt that cycle.
The singles released prior to the album did little to dispel the notion that things would be different this time around. “The Body” and “The Matrimony,” as clever as they were, didn’t differ sonically from past album lead-ins, except Miguel and Tiara Thomas had been substituted with Jeremih and Usher. Original material concocted in-studio with Wale from Jerry Seinfeld certainly gave TAAN a unique advantage, but it was hardly a guarantee of quality. To put it bluntly, aside from all the frills this defining LP came with, Wale was still going to have to deliver.
As a good friend of mine put it, “it’s the most Wale thing Wale has done, I think,” and though that has the scent of a backhanded compliment, it bodes extremely well for Folarin. His personal experiences have always provided the bulk of the inspiration for his material, and TAAN is no different, aside from the fact that personal experience provided all of its inspiration. He’s sacrificed the repetitive R&B records that have cluttered past Wale LPs for more adventurous forays of similar content that come with greater risks, but reward both the artist and the listener. There are two glowing examples of this: the ominous “Girls On Drugs”–thanks, Janet–and the SZA-assisted “The Need To Know,” both of which are two of the better album cuts Wale’s ever done. On the latter, Wale scales his sometimes over-aggressive flow back in favor of a tranquil approach, treading lightly over a JGrammBeats bassline so as not to lessen the impact of a barely-there guitar strum–necessary to avoid cacophony. His tale of a strained platonic relationship, one he wishes were so much more, are accentuated by one of the best performances of SZA’s career. TDE’s 1st lady leads a quiet storm of a chorus, borrowing Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends (Sunny),” and turning it into a mellifluous break from Wale’s verses, her voice much sharper and less eerie than we’re used to.
For all the debate of the songs Wale constructs and why, seldom do those arguments fall to open criticism of his rhymes. In a day where even the proven greats get their lyrics picked apart and turned into fodder for Twitter jokes–there’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to Things Lil Wayne Would Say–Wale has, for the most part, escaped such scrutiny–and for good reason. Whether he’s lamenting the effects of intra-racial prejudice with Chrisette Michele, or the concept of marriage with Usher, his pen has remained sharp. In fact, he’d be higher on most critics’ lists if he were judged solely on the technical aspect of putting rhymes together, which is rarely the case for an artist openly yearning for Top 40 success. If nothing else, “The God Smile” is a friendly reminder. “My God n*gga life like a dice roll/and it’s twice hard throwing it with mics on/I hit em with the rap, everybody slept/then I came back killin’ everybody’s nap like a hot comb.”
Though both the peaks and valleys of Wale’s fourth LP are both higher than those of his previous albums, he hasn’t quite, 100% found his Nirvana. At a private listening party in February at Tom’s Restaurant–the iconic Seinfeld diner–Wale boasted of a tracklist with very minimal features, in an attempt to force listeners to focus on his ability as a solo artist, which is a noble mission, but not always a fruitful one. At times, Wale sounds as if he’s singing from his heart, but at others, his attempts to score his own mini movies comes off as vain. If anything, for the 5th LP, understanding that part of remaining true to one’s self as an artist is admitting when help is needed, will bode well.
One thing is for sure: this is absolutely Wale’s best album. Moving forward, his mission may be to not only expound on the things he did well here, but also to find a way to revamp his radio formula. The album’s first two singles were the least successful pair of lead singles from any of Wale’s four major albums, but the end result of the LP was by far his most desirable. If anything, even to the most pretentious of the DMV native’s detractors, TAAN is easily reason to stay tuned in to see what happens the 5th time around, which, in the internet and information age, is not a bad thing.
Khari is The Source‘s Music Editor, and lives in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.