Compared with a lot of the rappers in his peer group who can be identified with a single aesthetic — Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y with laid-back stoner vibes, Freddie Gibbs with ’90s gangsta-rap worship, Cool Kids with bicycle minimalism — Wale seems to hop manically between styles, going full chameleon wherever he lands. Which is the real Wale? Is he the leader of DC hip-hop, devoted to Backyard Band samples and featuring the chipmunk-voiced Tre of UCB on every track he can? Or is he a would-be member of the exiled State Property collective, as his blistering collaborations with Young Chris, Freeway, et al on Back to the Feature seemed to indicate? Or is he Mark Ronson’s protégé, committed above all else to providing downtown hipsters with smart, worldly dance music? The only answer new mixtape More About Nothing provides is this: He’s all the above. Wale continues to be an artist driven by nothing so much as his own razzle-dazzle worldplay and frenetic musical taste.
Over the past year Wale learned a couple of hard lessons: the rap-blog readership is a fickle bunch, and hip-hop’s moral high ground is a lonely place. After releasing three acclaimed mixtapes (2007’s 100 Miles & Running, 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing, and 2009’s Back to the Feature) and signing with Interscope, the Washington, D.C., native was poised for a major breakthrough. A Lady GaGa feature on his debut’s first single was certainly a gift to those raring up to hurl “sellout” accusations, but when the album, Attention Deficit, finally arrived, it was clear that the no such slur would stick. If the record was designed to rack in the soundscans, it did a pathetic job, moving a measly 28,000 copies in its first week. And it was hard to build a case that Wale was selling out considering that he put the album’s most marketable guest star, Gucci Mane, on a go-go-influenced beat that he had to have known would go nowhere on the radio, or that he opened with the album with a pair of hookless, lyrically dense songs with far-out production tracks. Outside of Gaga’s appearance and a miserable Neptunes/Pharrell bid, Attention Deficit was both as adventuresome and tradition-deferential as could be expected of a newcomer on a major label.
So when the album flopped with its two intended audiences — on the one hand, purists with two thousand Lil Wayne leaks on their hard drive, and on the other, workaday commuters who think the Hot 97 playlist represents the extent of the knowable musical universe — Wale was left holding the bag. Only in hip-hop, with its treasured traditions of unrealistic expectations and premature hero-worship, could someone be considered both a sellout and a commercial failure. One subtext underlying all this was the oft-forgotten fact that Wale actually did very little to encourage either the undeserved adulation or the visceral backlash. As far as rappers go, he’s relatively humble. He may be prone to the usual bombast about being the realest rapper out there or taking home a different babe each night, but his visions are neither stratospheric like Wayne’s nor megacorporate like Jay-Z’s nor prophetic like Nas’s nor paranoid like Kanye’s. Wale is more interested in talking about obscure D.C. neighborhoods or making almanac-thumping sports references than positioning himself as a kingpin or savior. And his issues-centric songs — see the music-industry screed “The Plan” or the skin-tone parable “Shades” — are presented not as “this is the last word on X” sermons but thoughtful inhabiting of problems.
More About Nothing comes in the wake not only of Attention Deficit’s disappointment but a recent mix-up that proved Wale’s fortitude in addition to his characteristic bad luck. A few months ago Wale and his management discovered that an event he had agreed to play in D.C. was part of a gay-pride celebration — he would have been the first heterosexual headliner in the history of the event. Wale dropped out, citing bogus scheduling conflicts. When the leader of the organizations running the concert took to the local press excoriating Wale for making a bigoted move, he relented and agreed to do the show, for free. Kind of like how Attention Deficit’s alleged major-label mismanagement amplified the debate about where rappers fit on the commercial landscape, Wale’s gay-pride miscue led to a discussion about rap’s overt homophobia. Although Wale’s initial decision to back out of the event was cowardly, it wouldn’t have caused a blip of offense within hip-hop, where homosexuals are made to feel as welcome as they are in pro athletics circles. Coming back and performing wasn’t exactly heroic for Wale, but it was a progressive move nonetheless. Too bad the incident only gets a line, and not a full song, of treatment on More About Nothing, when Wale raps on “The Soup,” “I am not no homophobe/ good thing I don’t read the Post.”
Given his recent struggles, one might expect Wale to go full-on confessional on More About Nothing, but “The Soup” is the only place on the album where he reflects on recent events. Aided by a dark, thumping beat provided by D.C.’s Best Kept Secret, Wale raps in uncomfortable, edgy verses about his supposed falling short (“Competition I ain’t winning, but admit it, I’m still in it”) while giving more energy to clever wordplay, working in the Soup Nazi referenced in the title and dropping head-scratchers like “I volunteer every 10 I see, Vincent Yarborough” (which takes a few listens to be appreciated, if that is the right word). It would probably be more helpful to rap writers if Wale gave a full accounting of his issues and vendettas in the Kanye mode, but that’s obviously not what he’s all about. The only other place where he ventures close to himself is “The Numbers Won,” another moody piece of boombap that has more to say about how maybe rap music suffers from its insistence on athletic-style competition than it reveals about Wale’s own need to succeed.
An addiction to being as clever as possible is becoming both Wale’s downfall and his calling card. When he focuses on a single story or issue, like he did on “The Kramer” or does here, on “Friends N Strangers,” narrating a relationship drama that ends in a paternity test, he makes a case for being the best conscious-rapper out there, if that term still applies. But moments of focus are rare. Too often, Wale’d rather be funny. “The Eyes of Tiger” bills itself as a first-person exploration of the Tiger Woods tabloid fiasco — hinting at the interracial taboos the story tugged at and ESPN’s fair-weather patronization — but the most memorable moment of the song is when Wale raps in Tiger’s voice about “all the pedicures I’ve given to their camel toes.”
Elsewhere, More About Nothing is marked by the presence, in spades, of Wale’s best and worst tendencies. He’s gives U.K. disco crooner Sam Sparro the Justice treatment on “The Black N Gold,” taking a song most Americans have never heard and flipping it for thrilling, sugary effect. “The Work (Workin)” is full of tireless boasting that doesn’t mean much when you add it all up but is delicious when it’s being consumed. And then there are the bombs — the downbeat, synthy relationship saga “Ambitious Girl” and the coffeehouse jam “The Cloud” — that prove Wale is incapable of writing a boring line even if the song as a whole is doomed from the start.
Like all sequels, More About Nothing fails to match the power of its predecessor. But it is a marked improvement over Attention Deficit and Back to the Feature: better than the former because Wale is given a freer reign over beat selection, better than the latter because it’s not weighed down by guest spots. Wale has already proven himself a virtuoso when it comes to lyricism. What’s needed now is discipline and a coherent vision. Maybe he’ll find that, and maybe he won’t. Until then, these often brilliant, often frustrating collections like More About Nothing will have to suffice.