Last November, Zeus wrote a post dissecting the differences between albums and mixtapes for the benefit of crits and fans who had been mistakenly conflating Pusha-T rhyming over old G-Unit beats for high art. It happens. The post may have been a tad heavy-handed, but its point was salient. More often than not, mixtapes lack the conceptual unity, cohesiveness and thoughtfulness that people should require from great records. Not to say that We Got it 4 Cheap Vol. 2 or any number of the critically adored Lil Wayne mixtapes didn't have their share of exceptional moments, but they were poorly mixed, filled with migraine-inducing DJ drops, and benefited heavily from unfair beat selection advantage. I.E. to borrow from Kane: rhyming over “Reppin' Time” is like spandex, they can make any ass seem good. Well, except Jim Jones.
What's not up for debate is the fact that those tapes, along with the Dipset 03-05 material and the early 50 Cent bootlegs, changed the game. What was once a promo tool to stoke hype has become a vital artistic necessity, one spurred on by the increasing reluctance of majors and indies to release rap albums.* Compounded with the Internet's ease of transmission, rappers have been slowly realizing the medium's potential: namely, that by releasing an album on the Internet, you can use prohibitively expensive copyrighted material gratis and in the process manage to keep your name on everyone's mouths. Everyone wins.
But the format didn't reach full bloom until just recently, with rappers increasingly discovering creative avenues that had been ostensibly killed with the Biz Markie sampling decision. In the last 10 months alone, we've seen Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror Mixtape flip old Michael Jackson beats, Blueprint's Blueprint Vs. Funkadelic, and Kanye's pre-Graduation mixtape featuring uncleared Thom Yorke and Peter, Bjorn & John samples. Yet none of that trio has realized the medium's true capabilities quite like D.C. rapper Wale's Mixtape About Nothing that dropped last week.
And Yet Obstacles Remain….
For those just tuning in, over the past year Wale has built a name for himself as one of the most promising rappers around, dropping the impressive 100 Miles & Running mixtape, signing to Interscope, earning the cover of Urb, a spot on EW's Top 8 To Watch in 08 list and placement on the main stage of this year's Rock the Bells tour. But for all the attention he's already accrued, Wale's conceptually brilliant The Mixtape About Nothing not only justifies the acclaim, but deserves to put him on anyone's short list of the best rappers of his generation.
From “The Opening Title Sequence,” where Wale flows over the gurgling Seinfeld bass line, to “The End Credits,” Wale's songs burst with ideas. The guy's got an opinion on everything from the myriad problems facing the rap world to the press to illegal downloading, to the DMV and how its possible that Eddie Murphy could get a wife, ex-wife and baby mother all in the same year. Whereas it could easily come off as sub-emo whining, Wale succeeds because of his ability to reconcile contradictions. He's moral without being moralizing, he's smart but not nerdy, he's critical but not conscious. Jonathan Bradley apt described him “as a uniter, not a divider, with a strongly backpacker aesthetic with a breakout song that features Bun-B and Pusha-T. He expresses strong affection for the idiosyncratic sound (go go) of his hometown, but makes it palatable for those who have never heard it before. He combines Southern efficiency with Northern charm. He's the kind of rapper everyone wants.”
Despite repeatedly boasting that the tape is about “nothing,” like Seinfeld itself, Wale's intentions are subtly subversive and filled with self-deprecating satire. Songs like the erstwhile “Nike Boots,” are now re-titled “The Cliched Lil Wayne Feature.” “Back in the Go-Go” has morphed into the “The Feature Heavy Song.” Whereas 100 Miles & Running marked the emergence of Wale, the rapper, a complex, lyrical dude who could kill a Camp Lo beat then run in place to “D.A.N.C.E;” The Mixtape About Nothing heralds the triumph of Wale, the artist, an off-kilter but cool MC with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture flotsam and jetsam, ranging from Seinfeld minutiae, to riffs on Narml from Garfield and the Game Genie.
Complete With Shoes That Glow in The Dark
Utilizing familiar, amusing snips of Seinfeld dialogue, a shout-out from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and clips from Kramer's racist outburst, Wale ingeniously weaves skits with song concepts, intelligently covering a gamut of topics ranging from race to culture to inter-personal relationships. Whenever dudes like Kanye or Lupe try to speak “consciously,” they at best sound polemical and strident, at worst muddled and vague. By contrast, Wale evidences an almost Obama-like ability to simplify complicated topics and re-organize them in sober, clear light. In particular, his almost uncomfortable honesty and deeply reflective revelations on “The Kramer” turn it into one of the smartest and most resonant songs to grapple with race in recent memory.
The most exciting part about The Mixtape About Nothing is getting to hear a young rapper with new ideas. Granted, Wale probably owes a certain debt to Kanye, Lupe and yes, Lil Wayne for making it okay for rappers to be weird again. But Wale goes out of his way not to compare himself to any big names, declaring on “The Artistic Integrity,” that “they say, I'm Jay-Z, they're say I'm Kanye, they say I'm Lil Wayne…why can't they say that I've found my own lane.” He's no impostor trying to inherit an imaginary throne. He's just trying to be Wale. Which sounds normal in theory but isn't when every new major label goon over the decade has tried to foist the notion that they're the next [insert Pac, BIG, or Jay-Z here.
Think of Wale as the platonic ideal spawned from the Rawkus/Okayplayer school and from the swag and aesthetic splendor of the decade's most influential album, The Blueprint. The Mixtape About Nothing isn't just a great mixtape, it's a great record, the rare rap album capable of transcending genre and improving with repeated plays. Not only is it a high-water mark for the mixtape medium, but it also sets the bar for the next generation of rappers. I suppose this could be Wale's creative zenith, but I doubt it. If he continues to get better at this rate, the guy's eventually going to get another title taken from an episode of Seinfeld: the truth.
* Clearly, y'all are as breathless for that new Nelly jaunt as I am.