This Sonic Breakdown was written by DeRa Brinson, founder of thesonicbreakdown.com
This week’s Sonic Breakdown will cover Wale’s album The Album About Nothing. This album is the third Wale album I have listened to, having previously listened to Ambition and Attention Deficit. I will give a breakdown of each track followed by a conclusion on the album as a whole.
“The Intro About Nothing”
The piano has a nice, smooth feel as Wale flows over the track while a violin provides more layers that pique the senses subtly. The violin takes me back to when I was twelve years old and my Aunt Michele introduced me to Regina Carter, a jazz violinist who draws upon a wide range of musical influences. There is a breakdown in this song that sounds like a hint of go-go music, a nice punch of energy that lends a feeling of summertime and having fun. Go-go is a sub genre of music I would like to explore more. (Shout-out to any of my D.C folks for some guidance on that.) Toward the end of the song, it becomes a celebration with a church harmony. Wale is basically giving us a synopsis of the topics we will hear in the album.
“The Helium Balloon”
It begins with Jerry Seinfeld talking about a helium balloon, which is a representation of talent—specifically, the musically talented—and the fans are the string attached, going along for the ride. Wale’s first verse has a hint of cynicism in the tone but presents as him being forthcoming. The lyrics are about wanting to reach the top of the charts and stop communicating with friends with normal jobs, though he sometimes wishes he were in their shoes because the entertainment business isn’t as great as we think. The beat changes to a hood march with a bass line, giving the impression that Wale is a general, the kind of general that doesn’t yell and scream but still exudes leadership. He expresses his sentiments by being real and smooth with a directed aggression. Seinfeld has several other clips woven throughout the song that complement the progression of the story. Magazeen, a Maybach Music reggae artist, comes in for the bridge. His voice and tone resembles Bounty Killer on this song. I will have to check out his other work. The song concludes with marching that confirms the hood march vibe that was inferred earlier.
“The White Shoes”
The beat sort of reminds me of a 90s R & B song with the bass and kick drum. This is reinforced by the shoes he refers to, which are from that era. Wale uses the white shoes as a symbol for society’s affinity for materialism. Seinfeld is sprinkled throughout this song as well, relaying the origin of the white shoes story that serves as the muse for this song. Lyrically, Wales uses a lot of similes and double entendres for materialistic qualities. The following line is an example of this: “free lunch for everyone, income was very uh, on the 2nd and 16th, everyone would have everyone (expensive shoes).” He also talks about people being killed over shoes and being buried in them, giving us the dichotomy of what materialism can produce. This song’s vibe and message is something that I witnessed when I was young and growing up poor, and it is still prevalent in society today. The feeling of wanting the new Jordan and not being able to afford it but understanding that I will be okay regardless because of my mother’s teachings. She taught us it was okay to want new things but not to let that want consume us, not to let materialism affect my brothers and I mentally or emotionally. The last chorus of “you’ll be all right” feels as though Wale is telling us that with or without these things, we will be all right. This positive vibe leads into the next track.
An organ-like sound slowly builds up until another short clip plays from the Seinfeld TV show about wanting to be hopeless and the benefits that come with it. The horns and bass guitar give a feeling of hope that is juxtaposed against the line of “a nigga feeling hopeless.” That line becomes a part of the beat in the way it is used. The first verse is racially motivated without ever mentioning color or race, discussing thing from Zimmerman to college discrimination to the news and TV shows perpetuating negative black stereotypes. Wale is breaking down things that make many black people feel hopeless. J.Cole is also featured on this song for the chorus. The message is that we have to change things ourselves to not feel hopeless while trying to maintain a semblance of hope. The second verse brings up more examples of hopeless situations that anyone can relate to, from losing a loved one all the way to specific black community issues as well as just social class issues. The horns and J. Cole close the song out.
“The Middle Finger”
This song has my favorite line from Jerry Seinfeld on the whole album: “They don’t believe half the shit they say. People want to talk . . .” The beat has a futuristic, airy feel and Wale explores by singing the chorus as if he doesn’t care what anybody has to say. I could have done without him singing that part, but it isn’t a deal breaker because it provides validation of the line “fuck you, leave me alone.” The lyrics are very introspective of what has been going on in Wale’s life, dealing with such things as the heartbreak of losing a child through miscarriage. By the end of the track, Wale conveys a feeling of being at peace with himself as he is not concerned with others’ opinions, and that is confirmed by Jerry’s last comment: “aware of everything but pay attention to one thing, me, my life”.
“The One Time in Houston”
This song has a strong Houston vibe from the bass all the way to it being screwed up. The sample used is the New Edition song “If It Isn’t Love.” The lyrics and the Seinfeld clips revolve around love or wanting/receiving love. Wale enlightens us on the mindset of groupies and how celebrities should tread through experiences with them on a sexual level. There is a point where the beat becomes lighter and softer and slows even more. This slower sound is more geared to a song for a stripper. Wale finishes the track understanding that he wants to move forward with the women sexually but nothing more. This is evident by him giving a woman his number but advising that it will change it in two days, indicating no long-term commitment.
“The Girls on Drugs”
Even from the beginning, this is a higher energy track with a sped-up version of “Go Deep” by Janet Jackson, which gives off a pleasant party vibe. Wale discusses “the women I am dealing with” from the aspect of not allowing them to see his house and using Uber to meet women at their home. He hints to wanting more but not being able to find someone worth settling down for. The lyrics are snippets of different situations he has encountered with girls that share a common thread: drugs. The perspective doesn’t sound accusatory but more observational and sympathetic.
“The God Smile”
This has a much heavier and deeper feeling then the previous songs. He is praising God for his accomplishments and life lessons. This is another song where it feels as though Wale really says everything he wants to say freely. It is as if this is his lyrical gospel, as if he is releasing something off his chest. Gratefulness and pride are mixed at times while being clearly divided in other areas. The last line, “everything to nothing but nothing is everything to you” is profound. He is saying that we don’t have to possess material things to have everything that matters, but society gets it confused. The things that matter can’t be bought but only earned and given, which is love.
“The Need to Know”
The clips and the sample provide the clues that friendship with sexual benefits is the goal. The core beat is from Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends,” which is a sung here by SZA, a TDE artist that has an amazing and unique voice that I believe is underrated at this time. Wale is talking to the women he is trying to approach to escalate a relationship to a sexual level. He states in a reassuring but a matter-of-fact tone that they will keep their relationship between each other and keep it casual.
This song has the feeling of walking through a jungle mixed with being in a gospel church, and Wale is the preacher, guiding us to success or the mentality that provides success. The lyrics support the philosophy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, where a soldier is at his deadliest when he is on “death ground.” Death ground is when you are symbolically at a cliff’s edge, leaving nowhere to retreat, facing an army that outnumbers you, causing you to be trapped. That feeling of knowing failure isn’t an option pushes you to your best. The cymbals clashing quickly creates a sound similar to that of swords fighting, amplifying that death ground sensation. The song ends with a final verse celebrating the success achieved under those circumstances.
“The Glass Egg”
The glass egg is symbolic of the balance between maintaining real friends and wealth. The song has a 90s vibe with an 80s movie theme sound wrapped into one. Wale informs us how hard the balancing act is; even as he wants to stay the same, things change. Sometimes it isn’t you that changes, it’s the people around you that change as a result of success. The line “balance a bitch, ’cause who’s on your back and whose got your back, sometimes that line doesn’t exist” best exemplifies the sentiments of the majority of the song. Chrisette Michelle’s beautiful voice finishes the song, changing from a hard, serious to a jazzy, smooth tone.
A very celebratory sound with a slightly old-school Motown feel. The horns and strings invoke a cool happiness that picks up pace as Stokley Williams sings over this beat, reminding me of a song on Raphael Saadiq’s Instant Vintage. The soulfulness and tone is what is reminiscent of Saadiq. The song is reflecting the feeling of falling in love, that early puppy dog phase where you’re getting to know this new person, and it is exciting, the love that wants to be complete and happy and doing everything to ensure it stays that way by any means necessary. This leads nicely into the theme of the next song.
Seinfeld begins the track by comparing engagement and marriage to a roller coaster ride. The song sounds like a pledge or statement of finally being ready for love and commitment. Usher is a nice complement here, his clear tone following the smoothness of the beat yet still providing assertiveness. The second verse hints at a sadness that has allowed him to be open to love as the result. The beat slows to an Atlantic Starr-type of sound with slow strings as Seinfeld now compares finding that right women as synonymous to being on separate planets. The song ends with what I believe is a single cello highlighted with other strings coming in and out over a piano very softly, making a very nice arrangement.
This sounds like a song that would be presented by Pretty Ricky or Plies. There are references to R. Kelly’s “Bump and Grind” that are used throughout the song. It isn’t a bad song, but it doesn’t add to or feel sonically cohesive to the context of the album. It conceptually represents the honeymoon night, I presume. It’s one of my least favorite songs, which caused me to finish the album on a low note.
The concept for The Album About Nothing by Wale is based on conversations between Wale and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, which inspired songs that coalesced into a complete album. I like the use of the Seinfeld clips and conversation to emphasize points or serve as supporting evidence to themes. There were many times when I felt like I wasn’t absolutely sure that my overall interpretation was correct, but then a clip would come in and validate or deny it. The album gives us a brief glimpse into the creative process and insight into the relationship between two entertainers from vastly different forums.
Overall, I’d say this is a good album that makes me feel as though I understand Wale more. There is only one song that I felt was a radio hit that I could have done without, though I don’t mind hearing it, and that is “The Body.” Another track that didn’t resonate with me as much is “The One Time in Houston.” It isn’t a bad song, but it didn’t provide anything to the album sonically for me either. The album as a whole is worth a listen and is an entertaining auditory experience. I do want to add that I would be interested in Wale exploring go-go as a full album concept. Next week’s Sonic Breakdown will be on Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth.