The Early Favorite for “Mixtape of the Year” Has Arrived

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If the album art at left seems vaguely familiar to you, that’s because you’ve seen it before. 

The newest mixtape from D.C. native Wale (probably the best rapper the general public somehow still doesn’t yet know about) is indeed an homage to his favorite TV show, Seinfeld — the original show about nothing.

The only thing wrong with Wale’s logic is that his mixtape is actually about something. A lot of somethings, even. He tackles one tough topic after the next on The Mixtape About Nothing, (racism, the music industry, love, growing up, artistic integrity to name a few) which should come as no surprise considering that before turning his attention to music full-time Wale played football at Virginia State. So just don’t call him a backpack rapper — cuz he ain’t one. But don’t call him a thug either, cuz Wale is about as far from a brainless thug as you’ll ever find in the rap game.

And that’s part of what’s great about Wale. You can’t pin him down as a “type,” paint him into a single-genre corner, or put him in a record company box. He’s too smart for that shit, and far too versatile (both lyrically and stylistically) to ever be defined as just one type of MC. Yeah he wears tight jeans and neon Nikes, but he’s still a street struggler who fought his way to record deals with Mark Ronson and Interscope. And sure he may call a girl “bitch” and his boys “nigga,” but that doesn’t mean he thinks “Obama” is some country in Africa either.

In a musical era where marketing and branding seem to come before beats and rhymes, most rappers are turned into virtual caricatures of themselves by providing (and encouraging) a specific self-image for their audience to hold on to…..

We’ve got the “Drug Rappers:” Clipse, Rick Ross, and Young Jeezy, for example…..the “Thug Life Rappers:” 50 Cent, The Game, and Jim Jones types…..the “Intellectual/Backpack Rappers:” Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, and Common all fit the bill…..the “Southern Smoke Rappers:” Mike Jones, Three 6 Mafia, and the Yin Yang Twins…..the “Party Rappers:” Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris etc…..the “Radio Rappers:” Plies, Soulja Boy, Young/Lil’ (insert name here)…..the “O.G. Rappers:” Jay-Z, Nas, and Snoop Dogg…..and then you’ve got the “Others,” who fight to stay out of any of the above categories: Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and OutKast probably represent that ideal most strongly.

And now, you can definitely add Wale’s name to that “Others” list, as he certainly doesn’t belong anywhere else. He’s doing things his way.

The Mixtape About Nothing should mark Wale’s ascendance to known entity, legitimate MC, signed rap artist, straight up commodity. He’s already made a few inroads into the mainstream: performing “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.,” a track from his last mixtape, 100 Miles & Running, at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (see last Friday’s picks), having “Ice Cream Girl,” another song from the 100 Miles & Running mixtape featured on HBO’s Entourage, and most recently Wale himself was featured on The Roots‘ first single, “Rising Up,” off their newest album, confusingly titled, Rising Down. But all other accolades and accomplishments aside, it’s The Mixtape About Nothing that should help push Wale out of Hip Hop’s peripheral vision and into its cross-hairs. 

Okay, now why is it so good?

First of all, it’s free. Available for yours, mine, and everyone else in the world’s downloading pleasure. This is important because it illustrates Wale’s understanding of how today’s music game is played (a lot like dealing crack actually) — you give the people a sample of the goods for free, and if the goods are good, the people will be willing to pay when you put out some more product. Sure he could try to sell each CD on the street-corners of D.C, Maryland, and Virginia for five bucks, but what good would that do besides tell the people who already know about Wale, about Wale? So what if he doesn’t make an instant profit? His last (free) mixtape was downloaded over 30,000 times — off his MySpace page! And trust me, not all 30,000 downloaders lived in the D.M.V. area. Imagine the reach of The Mixtape About Nothing now that Wale’s name is already becoming internationally known.

Second of all, Wale’s created what basically amounts to a brilliant “concept mixtape,” the likes of which have really never been seen before. There’s almost nothing to compare it to aside from Jay-Z’s recent “American Gangster” concept album. Even the track names on The Mixtape About Nothing emulate the style of Seinfeld‘s episode titles: “The Freestyle,” “The Perfect Plan,” The Kramer,” “The Vacation from Ourselves,” “The Manipulation,” “The Artistic Integrity”… get the idea. And going deeper, Nick Catchdubs, who “mixed the tape,” so to speak, and Best Kept Secret, a D.C.-area producer responsible for most of the beats on the mixtape, pepper many of the tracks perfectly with classic Seinfeld sound-bites whose incorporation acts as a backdrop for Wale’s always on-point lyrics.

(Quick sidebar: Because this is piece is really about Wale and the mixtape — and because I don’t want to torture all of you — I’m refraining from going into detail about Best Kept Secret’s beats. But know this, they’re all excellent and probably unlike anything folks outside the D.C. area have heard before. Most of them are a hip hip-style homage to the go-go music — a very specific strain of funk not popular outside of D.C. — that Wale, as a D.C. native, grew up on and still loves. Anyway, BKS and his beats on the tape deserve a mention somewhere in this space, so here it is. Go-go music, go go look it up — it’s great stuff).

Which brings us to the third reason The Mixtape About Nothing is so good, and why I’ve declared it the early favorite for “Mixtape of the Year:” Wale’s aforementioned on-point lyrics. The man is a flat out wordsmith. A cunning linguist of the highest order, who easily and breezely strings together one clever metaphor or simile after the next, hardly ever pausing for air or taking a line or two off. No, he’s not a rap prodigy like Jay-Z, who never writes anything down and somehow writes and remembers his lyrics in his head. (Though I do think Wale uses his Sidekick/BlackBerry as a rhymebook sometimes, which is not entirely uncommon). But you can tell Wale thinks about his lyrics — I mean really thinks about ’em. And that’s what makes them great, that’s what matters. But at the rate he spits, you can also tell how remarkably quickly he comes up with his knockout lines: FAST. Wale is as smart an MC as I’ve heard in years, and he kills you with his witticisms and his wealth of knowledge, ranging in subject matter from sports to the music industry to pop culture to politics to the streets and all the way back around again.

Now without revealing too much about the lyrical content of the tape (it’s free, and I’ll tell you where to find it, so everyone should get a copy anyway) or dwelling on the motives behind each individual track, there are a few songs and lyrics that are worth highlighting:

“The Kramer” is probably the most powerful and communicative song on a mixtape supposedly about nothing. Every time I listen to it, the opening still sends a chill down my spine and discomfort around the rest of me — it’s Michael Richards’ (still downright scary) racist rant over one of Best Kept Secret’s best kept beats. But “The Kramer” also showcases a variety of Wale’s considerable talents, including his wordplay and storytelling ability (there’s a huge twist at the end), as well as his willingness to go hard at tough topics. Here’s an excerpt, but beware, N-bombs fly everywhere on this one:

A nigga write ‘nigga’ in a lyric, expect white boys to omit it / The white boys spit it like HE spit it, recite it to his friends who by the way ain’t niggas / They say ‘nigga nigga nigga, my favorite rapper did it’ , and our nigga friends got it wit’ ’em / Incorporate this lyric into their everyday livin’, until a black friend kinda heard just a tid-bit / He thinks ‘oh forget it, it’s so insignificant and little / The white boy sees this a clearance now it’s ‘nigga nigga nigga’ every single day / And that little nigga nigga, think it’s okay / And he the only nigga in this particular grade, and it begins to phase him more each day / The things they say went a little to far, he couldn’t tell the difference ‘tween an -A or a -ER / So they just keep goin’ sayin’ nigga in his face, there’s nothin’ he can do, he let it get away / It came to the point he couldn’t look ’em in the face, the mirror made him ‘url his reflection disgraceful / Yeah, and make sure everything you say, can’t be held against you in any kind of way, in any connotation or viewed many ways…..

“The Manipulation” is another interesting track about something. This time, Wale raps as two different men — one caring and respectful towards women, the other a prototypical hip hop misogynist — switching back and forth between the two, as Best Kept Secret’s beat switches with him. 

Guy 1: The purpose of these lyrics, the source of my happiness, without you nothin’ in the world seems to matter, my honey…..

Guy 2: Yeah, bitch, you need to sit on me, you like my conversation I know I make you horny, if you hungry, it’s still M.O.B. we ain’t never gon’ be, I be leavin’ in the mornin’…..

And in typical Wale fashion, he ends the track with a spoken-word pseudo-apology: I wanted to creatively express myself and just let ’em (women) know that there’s two different kinds of guys you can meet. There’s a good guy that’s gonna call you a lady, a woman, and even your real first name. Then there’s guys that are gonna try to pull your hair and call you bitches and hoes and all that. So you basically have the opportunity to choose one or the other. So…..bitch, pick the right mothafucka.

On “The Perfect Plan” Wale goes after the music industry and weighs the pros and cons of today’s music industry landscape, where songs are leaked and downloaded well before their albums ever come out. On “The Artistic Integrity” he raps about just that — staying true to himself and his upbringing while becoming famous, and about the importance of maintaining his individuality: They say I’m too nice to be a rapper, the prerequisite is gun-clapper so what happened / They labeled me a backpackin’ nigga on fashion, I laugh at ’em, yo Mr. West I ain’t mad cha…..

There are many more standouts I could talk about, sure, but in truth the entire mixtape is just consistently excellent, which, in this age of ADD, is hard to do. But Wale never flags, never waivers, keeping his energy (and yours) going for over an hour. It’s only after The Mixtape About Nothing has ended do you realize how intently you were just listening. 

If there’s anything negative to say about Wale’s style or substance, the only thing I can think of is that he’s truly the rarest of rappers who constantly flows along so swiftly and so subtly, he often leaves you wondering if you just heard what you thought you just heard. And then you gotta go back and rewind that tape just to find out. 

Shit, that’s not really a bad thing though, is it?

– Jonathan

Download The Mixtape About Nothing

Wale’s official MySpace Page

Wale’s official Website

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