Album Review: 'The Album About Nothing' Is Wale's Most Personal and Best Work
Wale made his breakthrough with the Seinfeld-inspired The Mixtape About Nothing seven years ago. Since, the D.C. rapper has changed record labels, rebounding from the commercial failure of his 2009 debut, Attention Deficit, by topping the Billboard 200 with his last effort, The Gifted. Despite his success, Wale’s career has been a continuous battle for respect, with the rapper often erring in his quest for it. He's been accused of abandoning his artistic integrity in pursuit of fame, and has earned a reputation for being a whiny malcontent. During the rollout of his latest offering, The Album About Nothing, he promised a return to the essence of what initially earned him critical acclaim. This album finds Wale, with the help of Jerry Seinfeld, making good on the promise to return to his roots while covering so much ground that its title is ultimately misleading.
Music has long been Wale's therapeutic method of releasing his demons of self-doubt. On the "The Intro About Nothing," he reveals that fear of complacency fuels this restlessness over piano keys which build into an explosion of percussion: "Still my hunger's like a fuckin' model at a buffet." This is both The Album About Nothing’s thesis, as well as the theme of Wale's career. Where that hunger previously compelled him to seek comfort through the approval of others, he's finally learned to look inward for satisfaction. Through this soul-searching, Wale is now better able to connect with listeners by relating his personal issues to those plaguing the masses.
A sneaker connoisseur, Wale uses the Pro Reese-produced "The White Shoes" to analyze the correlation between confidence and material possessions. He reflects on urban environments where "the sneaker stores and laundromats get all the money/ Cause it ain't about what you're doin', but how you’re lookin'." The mixture of tender keys, gliding synths, and crisp snares make Wale's association of self-esteem precise. Even as a fan of the sneaker culture, Wale sees the fault in equating the pristine shine of white sneakers to status.
Wale's retention of popular culture and cognizance of what's going on in the world has always bled into his music. Reuniting with past collaborator Osinachi on the J. Cole-assisted "The Pessimist," he examines the toxins which poison the black community, from the narrow path leading black men straight to jail to the delusive veil of prosperity. He refers to fame as "America's dream and nightmare in the same being," as he again surveys himself and his status in the mirror. This makes "The Pessimist" the perfect title, as it exhibits Wale's knack for constantly finding the one thorn in a bouquet of roses. The intense devotion to his craft makes him exceptionally vulnerable, and why he focuses on criticism rather than praise.
Both "The Success" and "The Glass Egg" deal with the difficult balancing act that accompanies accomplishment. On the former, Seinfeld warns Wale that "success is the enemy," as it initiates a constant cycle of trying to top yourself. Producer Jake One's expertly-chopped drum fill accents Wale's confirmation of this insight. Meanwhile, "The Glass Egg" hovers over a melancholy Isaac Hayes sample on which Wale struggles to stabilize fragility at a great height.
The Album About Nothing concludes with a trio of love songs. "The Bloom (AG3)," "The Matrimony," and "The Body" play out like the proposal, wedding and wedding night. However, the unimaginative "The Body," which lifts the comparison of the female anatomy to an automobile from R. Kelly's 1995 hit "You Remind Me of Something," prevents Wale from sticking the landing. This obvious radio bait is the album's weak link, especially when compared to the "The Girls on Drugs," which samples Janet Jackson, and "The Need to Know," which features SZA referencing lyrics from Musiq Soulchild's "Just Friends." Both serve the same purpose as "The Body," yet are far superior.
Of all the guest features on The Album About Nothing -- J. Cole, Jeremih, SZA, and Usher -- none are more important than Jerry Seinfeld. In the past, he's served as a conduit for Wale, allowing him to first score critics' attention with The Mixtape About Nothing, then hit the reset button on his career with 2010's More About Nothing mixtape after being dropped from Interscope. With Seinfeld physically present for the recording of TAAN, he acts as Wale's needed elder advisor and a spiritual guide towards the next phase of his career.
Wale seems to take it personally when people attack him and his music because the latter is so deeply personal. The Album About Nothing is his most personal piece of work to date, and also his best. That hair-trigger sensitivity can be off-putting, but it's also what makes him good at what he does. Wale will likely never find his sanity where he finds his glory, but he should at least find solace in knowing that, with all eyes on him, he delivered not only his strongest album, but the one which will define his career.