1 Listen Album Review: Wale's "The Album About Nothing" (aka Wale Back)

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For me, Wale is like that childhood friend in your group who you wouldn't have been friends with if he didn't live in your neighborhood. He drives you crazy sometimes, you get why he drives other people crazy, but deep down you love him because he's been in your life for so long. For a while, Wale was my favorite rapper. Not only was he from the DMV, but he had the best sports references, a cool flow and some meaningful music.

Somewhere along the way though, our lives went in different directions. The more I got interested in soul beats and album credits, the more Wale looked (and sounded like) a Jenny Craig version of Rick Ross. Between the dystrophic arc of his music and the occasional outbursts, Wale has let me down more than a few times, but at the end of the day, he's a long time friend so I'll always give him another shot. We may be in two different places, but we spent too much time together to simply cut ties.

There's a lot riding on this album for me. If it's an MMG-laden project I think I'll be done with Wale forever. Between Festivus and the Mixtape About Nothing though, all signs point to this body of work being much better than Hood Billionaire 2.0. I'm cautiously optimistic, a bit worried, but mostly I'm excited. I've been looking forward to this album for a minute.  

As always, if you need a full "1 Listen Review" format breakdown start here, but the long story short is I'll be listening all the way through, no pausing or repeating tracks, and writing my first reactions. Enough chit-chat, let's get into it.  

1. "The Intro About Nothing"

Jerry Seinfield's voice just makes me laugh. I wish that show was still on TV. Anyway...hmmmmm. This is not what I was expecting. Kind of spoken word-esque. I really like the way this progresses. I didn't think Wale's flow was right for this record on the first few bars, but as the beat evolved, I got more and more into it; really dig that progression. Ohhhh. YESSSSSSS! Some go-go in there. I'm not sure how many of y'all outside of DC know about go-go, but here in DC it's so important. To hear Wale put a little go-go in his music kind of quiets my concerns. I'm sure there will be some MMG trap stuff in here, but this intro is shades of the Wale I fell in love with.  I can deal with a Fat Trel feature so long as there's some go-go. Shout out to that Tim Allen reference; Wale got a laugh out of me already. It's been a while since he made me laugh. Holy hell, this is a great track and it's only the intro? Between the go-go, the bars, and of course that flow, the album's first offering is a great start. 

2. "The Helium Balloon"

I love Jerry, but I hope these intros aren't on every track. His voice is even more grating through a great set of headphones. You know, I don't think I've ever heard Wale rap like this. It's quiet enjoyable to hear him over something so soft because it really highlights his unique voice. Oh. Never mind. That's not the beat. This beat's progression wasn't as interesting as it was on the intro, this beat is a little more trappy, but at least it's keeping me on my toes. My gut says I won't really spin this one too much; between the beat change, the Seinfeld samples and Wale's Shaggy-esque flow it feels all over the place. There's a lot going on here and it'll take more than one listen to figure out my feelings. Right off the bat though, not thrilled like I was on the first one. 

3. "The White Shoes"

Wale's doing a lot of interesting shit with his vocals, a little spoken word, a little dancehall, and now he's straight singing. I really like his cadence here; his swaying, graceful-mumbling flow is why I fell in love with his music in the first place. There aren't too many rappers who you can listen to for their delivery alone, but with that unique flow Wale is certainly one of them. I love the way he changes the inflection to squeeze in an extra word or two. It changes so often but still feels right. I'm not sure how I feel about his singing, but the verses are top notch here. Vibrant, but heartfelt. I haven't felt this heart in a Wale song in a hot minute. 

4. "The Pessimist" (ft. J. Cole)

Interesting "The Pessimist" comes right after a song where he croons "we'll be alright." George! He was always my favorite character. Anyway, for a song called "The Pessimist" this has some life to it. I'm really impressed with the production so far. Each song has its own vibe, and it may be unorganized in sections, but it flows like the Potomac and has a cushioned feel to it. Damn, Wale bringing out the double-time here. I didn't catch every bar because he's employing this cascading flow where he picks up speed with each word - it's a uniquely Wale experience - but I like the more conscious approach; much better than "shawty got a big ol' butt." Oh shit, Cole! I forgot he was on this album. Wow. This is by far the most substantial, well-crafted song so far; those drums after the first Cole hook are dope. This one flows nicely and it has some depth yet still manages to be so lively and colorful.. Is that "woahhhhh" a sample of "Treasure" or am I crazy? Also, no J. Cole verse?! I'm shocked. I can't help but feel like the old Wale would have given him four guest verses, but it seems like Wale's turned over a new leaf and is commanding the attention. I could also be reading way to much into it. I do think it's says something that even though I expected a J.Cole verse, I don't feel like the song was missing anything. Cole stans might feel otherwise, but Wale carried the load all by himself. His best effort so far. His best effort in a hot minute.

Sidenote: I really gotta pee....I didn't account for that. Rookie mistake. Full disclosure, I'm taking a two second bathroom break. 

5. "The Middle Finger"

This should be interesting.. I can't help but feel like this is a response to well, me, the guy who loves to over analyze anything Wale does. Where do I know this sample from?!?! Fuck! That's gonna kill me. It's hard to write and focus on the bars, so excuse me while I listen; I'm really interested in this one.


Okay. Interesting effort here. I didn't catch every single line, but I'm looking forward to going back and listening to catch everything he says. Next to Kanye, Wale is the rapper whose off the mic antics interest me most, and this one feels like a responsto all that, so I'm going to need some time on this one.  

Where the fuck is that sample from though?

6. "The One Time In Houston"

It feels like no story that starts off with "The One Time In Houston" can be good and the ominous intro only adds to the intrigue. This song sounds like Houston, a slow syrupy beat and those flanged vocals. To be honest, this has the vibe of a Drake song. I really hate to make comparisons, especially one like that, but this sounds just like a Drizzy, H-Town-centered track. I'm kind of ehh on this one. If I had a stack of ones, a styrofoam cup and a booty gyrating ever so eloquently in my face I'd probably be into it, but I'm sitting here in pajama pants while my roommate's dog licks himself on the couch. So far this is the only miss on the album, and it's not even that bad of a miss. You just gotta be in the right mood. 

7. "The Girls On Drugs"

Hard to believe we're half-way through. This album has flown by (in a good way). Anyway, I've heard this one already, as it was on his Festivus tape. I'm not surprised, nor upset that it's here as it is one of the standouts from an underrated tape, one of 2014's best offerings. It's definitely a little more poppy and clubby than the rest of the album, but I'm more than happy to spin this again. Fun record. 

8. "The God Smile"

The album has kind of fallen into this foggy, 3 AM trance. It's not bad, but I'd kind of like to get back to the first part of the album that had so much color, life, and of course, drums. I want some more go-go. Still, it's not like this is a miss by any means. In fact, I'm kind digging this. Woahhhh, now I'm digging this a lot. Wale's flow is crazy here; he raps so fast yet still fits that ambient, meandering beat. It's a great juxtaposition. If it means anything, Wale has me doing my turnt up dance. Also, bonus points for a Slim Charles reference.

Also, a fun fact that's kind of related but kind of isn't: Slim Charles is played by Anwan Glover, who is a member of the DC go-go ensemble, Backyard Band. Truthfully, that's one of the only bars I caught. Wale's avalanching flow is really hard to grasp in one listen. Gonna have to go back and listen to this a few times and I couldn't be happier about it. I may not have grabbed every bar, but I still left this one with a smile on my face. 

9. "The Need To Know" (ft. SZA)

Woah. SZA? Dope!  SZA and J.Cole > Fat Trel and Rick Ross every day. Shit. Feeling this one too. Overall, this album flows really well. The production is phenomenal. Oh SHIT!!!! THIS HOOK!!!! GOD FUCKING DAMN!!!! Goosebumps! It's hard to really get a feel for an album after one listen, but goosebumps are usually a pretty good sign that what you are hearing is dope. I want to listen to that hook forever and ever. That hook would make Peter Pan shit his leotard. Wale's always had a knack for the heartbreak/love 'em and leave 'em theme (see "Bad") but this one takes the cake. He's been doing a great job of creating an atmosphere on each track, and this is no different, but for me, this song is all about SZA. She murdered it.

10. "The Success"

As I said, Wale's mellow, hazy sound has been working, but I'm starting to fade. I need something to bring me back up. Boom! Just like that "The Success" comes kicking in the door waving the .44. This beat is bananas! Who is that on the boards, kind of sounds like Jake One. Oh...wait...something feels off. I really liked the intro and the build-up, but once the song gets in motion, something feels a little, off; I think his flow doesn't jive with the beat and it's throwing me off a little bit. It's weird though, I love the beat, I dig Wale's flow, but I'm not sold on them together. The past nine tracks have all been very cohesive and fluid and this feels a little choppy. Gonna have to spin it a few more times and really figure it out.  

11. "The Glass Egg"

YOOOOOO...THIS BEAT! That into is great! Wait...but again, something sounds a little off. I kind of feel like I'm listening to two different songs. The foundation is great, kind of a '70s cop flick vibe, but the drums and his flow don't mesh. The song sounds like it's heading in three different directions, but I'm only like a minute in, so maybe it'll even out. There have been a lot of switch-ups on the album and this song could use one. I dig the subject, he's very honest here, but the final package doesn't feel manufactured quite right. This could have been a banger of epic proportions. Ohhh, I do like the marching drum breakdown towards the end though. Also is that SZA again?

12. "The Bloom (Ambitious Girls 3)"

That subtle uses of silence, the eight seconds at the end of "The Glass Egg" before this jumpin' little diddy was a nice technique. Sure it was a few seconds, but I was able to take a breather and collect myself and that crisp little riff really hit because it broke the silence. It's the little things that make a big difference, and this album has been great when it comes to the little things: the switch-ups, the progressions. Is this still a MMG album? Woah. Who is that singing? Great start. Fuck man, this song is the jumpoff like a diving board. So much life, so much color! I bet it would sound great live. I love Wale here, too. I think he's muchmore natural on songs like this than say, "The Success." When the instrumental is a little more upbeat it really brings out the best in him. His flow isn't made for rough, rugged bangers, it's made for a colorful, go-go splashed instrumental like this one. Yeahhhhhh (no Jeezy)...this is a blast. My favorite effort so far. Again, the album is paced really well. I needed an energy shift, he was losing me, and sure enough, here it is. I'm back baby! Also, Wale is comparing girls to flowers; he's rap's leading botanist.

13. "The Matrimony" (ft. Usher)

Usher? Matrimony? It's a radio-ready love song. Hey, I'm fine with it, Wale makes some pretty good romantical, relationship-themed songs. This intro is my favorite, too. Fuck man, Usher can sing. I know that's like saying the sky is blue and pizza is amazing, but it's been a while since I've actually listened to his work, so forgive me for stating the obvious. You know, I've been hard on Wale in the past, but he's damn good at these love songs. Unlike a certain emotional Canadian, Wale's love songs never sound forced or corny; there's an authenticity to his love songs. When Wale is heartfelt, it makes for an interesting, engaging listen. (It's why I get so frustrated when he cops out and does a "Clappers" song.) This isn't my favorite song, but top-to-bottom it might be the most complete, clean effort.

14. "The Body" (ft. Jeremih)

Yeesh. Jeremih's nasally vocals kind of threw me off here; I was in the zone too. It's just kind of a shock to go from "Matrimony" to that little break, then have Jeremih shriek in my ear. Already not feeing this one and Wale's slurred sing-rapping isn't exactly helping. Oh ok. He's rapping now. It's much better but I'm still hesitant. This one feels a little generic. The beat is alright, Jeremih is annoying, the car references are played out. The only thing keeping me involved are the verses, which actually aren't that bad. I don't hate this one, but I probably won't spin it that much. It sounds like the Wal-Mart version of "Matrimony." It's by far the weakest track on the album. The other tracks I'm unsure of make me want to go back and listen again. I have no desire to hear this record again. Still, only one dud so far is way better than I was expecting. Shame this is where the album "officially" ends. Kind of a let down, would have loved a fun, crazy effort to wrap things off, but I'm not going to let it spoil 13 other songs. 

Well shit, Wale. Nice fucking job my man. This is kind of the album I was expecting in 2009, but better late than never I suppose. What stood out to me most was the complete lack of the trappy, MMG sound that ruined Wale for me for so many years. Truthfully, I was kind of listening with my hands over my eyes (or ears I guess). I kept waiting for Trel to stumble out or Ross to shout, and now that I know they aren't anywhere to be found I can go back and really enjoy myself. There's no ax over my head.

For better or for worse, I've been invested in Wale for a long time and it's nice to see him get back to his roots. This album certainly isn't about nothing; it's not perfect but lively, thoughtful, and heartfelt. Though it's not by any means perfect, I'm willing to let him be flawed because at the very least the heart that made me a Wale fan to begin with is there and it's adventurous. I'd rather hear a song that may not be perfect but has some emotion than another boring stripper anthem. Is Wale back? Who knows. Did he ever go away? Is trap Wale dead? Is this album one of the best of the year? I dunno; only time can give us those answers. All I know is that, for the first time in a long time, I'm excited about his music.

As far as a firstlisten goes, that's all you can really hope for. 

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]