What can you even say to this?
So Wale made a mixtape about Seinfeld. This is a weird thing for a rapper to be doing. Or maybe The Mixtape About Nothing isn’t strictly speaking a mixtape about Seinfeld, but it’s definitely centered around the show. The cover spoofs the show’s logo and DVD covers. Every song title starts with The: “The Freestyle,” “The Skit,” “The Cliche Lil Wayne Feature,” etc. Nearly every song comes with a sampled snatch of dialogue from the show attached, and at least a couple of them seem to spring directly from those samples. On the first track, Wale raps over the show’s bass-popping theme music and riffs on Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy: “What’s the deal with these ringtones?” Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, who played Elaine, shows up for a drop: “I am here on this mixtape to tell you that he’s awesome, and don’t you think that makes me the coolest person ever? Don’t you think my kids are gonna think I’m so cool I’m on this mixtape? Mothafucka!” And, maybe inevitably, there’s a “Sucka Nigga”-type meditation on race and language built on Michael Richards’s racist comedy-club meltdown rant from a couple of years ago. As formalist exercises go, I can’t really imagine anything more absurd. And if The Mixtape About Nothing accomplishes nothing else, at least it’s blown the door wide open for rappers making entire mixtapes about specific sitcoms. I’m eagerly awaiting the Plies mixtape about Dinosaurs, the Jadakiss mixtape about Ned & Stacey, and the Crooked I mixtape about Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.
Actually, I probably shouldn’t make fun of “The Kramer,” the Michael Richards song, since it’s probably my favorite track on the mixtape, the one where Wale comes most alive. There’s this great narrative arc to the song: a rapper throws N-bombs in his song, thinking the white kids will hear it but drop the word when they’re singing along. Except the white kids don’t drop it, and then maybe they eventually use it around their non-white friends. And the non-white friends let it slide, so the white kids keep throwing around N-bombs like it’s nothing, and it eats away at the non-white kid: “Any connotation is viewed in many ways / Cuz under every nigga there’s a little bit of Kramer.” This is serious, complicated stuff, rendered humanely and artfully. Wale doesn’t offer any answers and doesn’t let any of his characters off the hook, and he also calls Michael Richards “Kramer” throughout, which I like. If it took a bizarre YouTube bugout from a washed-up sitcom actor to get Wale to the point where he could write this song, so be it.
Wale’s from DC, and nearly every track on The Mixtape About Nothing comes directly and heavily influenced by go-go, the local timbale-heavy funk subgenre that’s basically existed in place of rap in DC for decades now. (Wale has no album out, but he’s already probably the most prominent rapper in DC history, an insane thing for a huge and mostly black city like that.) I grew up close enough to DC to be profoundly annoyed at how often DC rap stations play go-go. For some reason, live recordings always get radio play there, and live go-go recordings almost inevitably sound like ass. If you haven’t spent much time listening to WPGC and WKYS, try to imagine Hot 97 if, every 45 minutes or so, they played some unbelievably muddy and garbled cover of some popular R&B song, with lots of hyperactive percussion and dudes yelling on it. (Go-go live shows are a whole other story, but I’ll make that digression some other time.) I was a bit, let’s say, resistant to the idea of a go-go rapper going anywhere, but Wale and producer Best Kept Secret know how to condense that tumbling drum-heavy go-go insanity into something smaller and more digestible, letting the congas cascade everywhere but keeping the beat rigid and focused enough that it doesn’t sound about the completely dissolve. A few tracks even draw connections between go-go and dusty early-90s NY rap. Just as important, the mixtape is perfectly sequenced, thanks to Nick Catchdubs, a DJ and blogger who used to work at The Fader and who I know a little bit. The relatively boring stuff all comes buried near the end of the tape, and the earlier stuff flows impeccably; even the obligatory freestyle is over “Roc Boys,” which has a lithe enough live-funk beat that it fits beautifully with all the go-go. And Wale is a twisty and clever rapper. He stays on top of his beats, and he constructs his punchlines elegantly: “Y’all dudes rapping like you reading The Source / Wale rap like he read a thesaurus.”
So yeah, I like Wale, and I like the mixtape. But I can’t help but wish he’d find a bit more purpose and urgency throughout, the way he does on “The Kramer.” Wale’s main topic on the mixtape is the music industry itself: its problems, its solutions, Wale’s own place in it. He complains about leeching MySpace rappers and brags about his own MySpace hits in the same breath. He talks about how record labels who wouldn’t give him the time of day a year ago are all over him now. On the intro to his Baltimore club track, he complains for a while about how Baltimore radio doesn’t play him. Wale’s good at this kind of industry-talk, and he certainly knows what he’s talking about: “Niggas dowload cuz they scared to do / What the Soulja Boy fans be prepared to do / What the B5 fans get they mother to do / And cowboy country singers gon’ always recoup.” But even if you’re well-versed in all the industry’s woes, it’s not always fun to hear someone go on and on about it, and Wale uses the word Soundscan entirely too often. There’s still something to be said for developing a mystique, for keeping the shop-talk away from the audience, for just talking passionate shit for four minutes straight. On a few songs here, Wale does that. And even when he doesn’t, he still entertains. But he’d be a whole lot closer to greatness if he’d ditch all that inside-baseball talk.