Junk Mail: Wale, 'The Album About Nothing' Review
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about Wale's new album The Album About Nothing. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Caitlin Carter: Wale follows up 2008's The Mixtape About Nothing with a full The Album About Nothing and sounds more like that pre-Maybach rapper but with wisdom of a man in his 30s who has had his ups and downs in the industry. Marking his fourth studio release, The Album About Nothing, like the mixtape, was inspired by Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld, who cites Wale as his one of his favorite rappers, is a heavy presence on the album, almost acting as a mentor as he (and clips from his show) provides metaphors for the themes discussed.
This album appears be his most personal to date - though full disclosure, I haven't listened to much other than his singles over the past few years - with references to his relationship with his fans, the miscarriage of his unborn child, the black experience in America and tension with the music industry. It features guest appearances from J. Cole, SZA, Stokley Williams, Usher and Jeremih, but Wale is truly the strongest presence on the effort and is never upstaged.
How do you think this album stands up against the 2015 rap releases thus far?
Carolyn Menyes: I feel like rap is getting more conceptual, and in a way, getting back to the roots of having something to say rather than being all about that hoes and booze life. Maybe I'm still coming off the release of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, and I'm trying to digest all this weighty hip-hop. I'm a casual fan of the genre, so it's very different to me.
The relationship between Jerry Seinfeld and Wale on this album is the most curious thing to me, and their mentor/mentee thing is so fascinatingly genuine. My first impression of this album is that it almost feels like a behind-the-scenes look at how a record is conceived and recorded, especially with the clips of discussions with Seinfeld and the show itself. "The Intro About Nothing" is so meta. It's really different and cool.
Kyle Dowling: I came into this album being a bigger fan of Jerry Seinfeld than Wale. My initial question was why is this happening? Then I learned that Wale is apparently a HUGE Seinfeld fan, so it's rather cool to see the two build some sort of friendship. It's such an odd pairing and it kind of (strangely) works. I'll be honest: I wasn't really crazy about the album, especially compared to some other rap releases this year - mainly Kendrick Lamar's. The Album About Nothing had its charm, and I certainly dug a number of tracks, but its left at that.
Having said that, I love the approach to each track, either staring with a Seinfeld bit or Seinfeld episode. Very different.
And I'll agree, "The Intro About Nothing" is fantastic - might be my favorite on the album.
CC: Agreed. "The Intro About Nothing" was great. Carolyn, I also envision them just chilling in the studio with Seinfeld dropping wisdom and Wale pressing record throughout it all. As far as other favorites on the album, I really liked "The Helium Balloon," "The Pessimist," "The Need To Know," and "The Girls On Drugs."
CM: I liked "The Helium Balloon" too. I think the metaphor that Seinfeld brings in at the top of that track is one of the more successful. "The White Shoes" has that same sort of vibe, even if Wale's singing on the song is really, truly weak and a little embarrassing. He should stick to rapping. I think the bad thing about this album is that it's really top heavy. Caitlin, all your favorites were from the first half of the record, save "The Need to Know." If Wale was a TRUE Seinfeld fan, he'd know the show really only got better as it went on. Tsk, tsk...
Kyle, you're the resident comedy dude here at Music Times, LLC. What do you think of the metaphors and intros that Seinfeld uses throughout this album? Do you have any favorite music/comedy connections here? I can see how this concept may fly over a lot of people's heads. (But I'm also inclined to think most people are really stupid, so...)
KD: The album was very top heavy. I couldn't agree more. As I said, I loved "The Intro About Nothing." I also really enjoyed "The Pessimist." Wale was great on that track and I think the intermixing of George Constanza's thoughts on being hopeless was pretty ingenious. Constanza's character was totally pessimistic - thanks to his creator and inspiration Larry David - and rather hopeless. Which, of course, is funny.
And let's not get into Wale's singing on "The White Shoes." I'll agree with Carolyn -- lay off the singing and stick to rapping, dude.
As the Senior Comedy Dude of Music Times - my hopeful new title - I'd have to say that Seinfeld's banter with Wale in the very beginning of the album is pretty great. I also liked his conversation about marriage in "The Matrimony."
I said it before but it's such a weird pairing. And shockingly enough it wasn't too jarring for me. Perhaps I'm biased because I'm a Seinfeld fan, but I enjoyed the mix of the two worlds... maybe for the sheer fact that these two are completely opposite.
Seinfeld is known for his observational comedy. What I thought was cool was that Wale took moments of inspiration from conversations he had with Seinfeld. Or so it seems. I could be wrong.
CC: Yeah that's definitely what it seemed like to me, too, Kyle. I need to look more into the recording/writing process of this album because I'm curious which came first. Did Wale have these these songs written ahead of time or were they riffing off conversations with Seinfeld? I love unlikely friendships, which makes this that more enjoyable.
I like that the album takes you somewhere in the mind's eye and kind of sets you up for the mindset you should be in while delving into a particular song. I honestly think that observational comedy and rap go hand in hand, and this probably should've happened sooner. (Unless it has and I just didn't know.)
CM: I don't think anything like this has ever happened before. In the pair's Complex cover story, they mention that Jerry and Wale had these conversations, and then he went into the studio to record music. So, it was definitely a planned process. I wonder if maybe the Seinfeld clips were other songs and he just found a relation within the show, but I don't know.
I actually just read the Complex story, and Wale and Seinfeld's relationship is so different -- the comedian really is a teacher here, he walks him through fame and hecklers, there's a balance here. I think that's why this album feels (and sounds) so mature. I honestly don't think I've ever heard a Wale song before this album... which maybe I should've gone back and done that. But, he sounds really knowledgeable and seasoned on this records. I have a feeling that came from these conversations with Seinfeld. He's really absorbing here and spitting it back out.
I feel like we've talked about the concept of this album to death. So, what do you think of the musical themes on it? I'm not gonna lie -- I miss that signature Seinfeld bassline funkiness here, haha.
KD: Oh man, if this album started with the Seinfeld bass (or at the very least had Kramers "Giddy Up" line), I would have been in heaven. Sadly, it didn't.
There are a lot of themes going on here that I think are pretty personal. While I'm not a huge fan of "The White Shoes," there are several lines in there that are rather introspective. Wale seems to be analyzing certain aspects of himself, which is pretty on point with some of Seinfeld's bits. As I believe Caitlin touched on, rap and observational comedy look to be pretty similar - something I didn't realize before, to be honest. They're both largely about the struggle. Just different outlets, I suppose.
CC: I was hoping for the Seinfeld bass as well, but I feel like that might've been too gimmicky. As far as themes, it seems that Wale really likes to analyze (maybe even over-analyze) things. Although not one of my favorite songs, it was interesting to see Wale express his bitterness toward the mainstream, commercial side of the industry on "The Middle Finger."
CM: I bet that bassline would cost like a billion dollars, though. Wale mentioned how expensive the show clips were in Complex, so I can only imagine how much the theme song would be.
I like "The Middle Finger" a lot, though once again, Wale really needs to stop trying to sing and leave the hooks to Usher. It's a really vulnerable song, not only about the industry but about his personal life and girlfriend's miscarriage.
All of this is why I wanted to discuss the sound of this record, which we never really got around too. Wale wants to be in the mainstream rap scene, but he sounds so not mainstream. There's a lot of piano and spacey synth on this record, it doesn't sound like a Flo Rida or Drake song. He's got this interesting mix of softness and hardness in him that's appealing. But, he can't connect with a wider audience. What do you think of the music itself? The beats, if you will?
KD: I would agree, Carolyn. The music is too synth-y to be mainstream and the singing really throws me. There are a number of songs which can, I think, lend themselves to "mainstream" but they're ruined by some strange tones, reverb or spacey keyboard-like sounds. But maybe that's just his thing.
CC: I think that "The Girls On Drugs" could fit in the mainstream landscape, but outside of that, not much else.
I think Wale is the kind of artist who does what he wants to do but then is upset that not everyone gets it. Being mainstream is overrated. You can still have a huge fan base without having any songs on the charts. You just need to have the right type of expectations. If you're going to be experimental, you can't always expect your formula to fit in the mainstream style du jour.
CM: No, for sure. The thing about being outside the mainstream yet being successful is that you have to put out incredibly high quality product. We've talked a bit in circles about The Album About Nothing, but the overwhelming sense I get is that its mediocre. It's a concept album built upon one of the most entertaining people and TV shows of all time, and yet, the album itself isn't really that interesting to listen to.
This album is personal and introspective, and I really appreciate that from any artist, especially rappers. But, beyond that, I think Wale could have built in some great word play here, some more innovative rhymes or beats. And, yeah, maybe that's not his thing. But when everything just sort of blends together... the messages of this record get lost in just sort of how boring it is to listen to. Am I the only one who feels that way?
CC: No I agree. It's definitely not up to par with a good handful of artists who are pushing the genre's boundaries right now. Interestingly, those same artists are being experimental and commercially successful. So it can be done. I'd put this album like a rung or two down from the Kendrick Lamars, Big Seans, J. Coles, Drakes of the industry. His song "The One Time In Houston" even sounds like a Drake song. Even artists who aren't writing conscious rap, like your Rae Sremmurds, are still at least bringing some infectious singles to the table.
KD: I agree. Like I said before, the Seinfeld parts were my favorite (again, perhaps I’m biased) and I really wasn’t too crazy about the album other than a small number of tracks –– mainly the top. It’s largely due to the spacey tones and whatnot, but I can respect the fact that he does his own thang. I mean, thing.
CM: The Album About Nothing, at the end of the day, is more interesting in its concept than in its execution. I really appreciate the lyricism and thought that Wale put into each of these songs, but there is little else to latch on to. Unlike Seinfeld the TV show, this album will be largely forgotten in the grander scale of pop culture.
CC: The Album About Nothing showed me how well observational comedy and rap go together. However, within the context of the genre's other offerings, it doesn't grab me that way I'd like. There are some gems in there, though (top-heavy as they may be), and I think it was a cool project to see through for both Wale and Jerry Seinfeld.
KD: I didn't realize how closely related rap and comedy could be until listening to The Album About Nothing. Sadly, I don't see this record living up to the hype of Seinfeld - the show or the comedian. I love that the two are friends, and I love the origin story between the, but despite the few tracks we mentioned, I wasn't too crazy about it.