Nothing ever happens on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a place where corners have long been dominated by several varieties of frozen yogurt shops and a Banksy lives under plexiglass. Even Seinfeld, its number-one cultural landmark, famously called itself “a show about nothing.” And so it’s appropriate that Wale – whose love of Seinfeld spans two mixtapes and a shared Complex cover with Jerry – previewed his upcoming The Album About Nothing at Tom’s Restaurant, its exterior familiar to anyone who’s crossed a television these past twenty years.
This was a full-on takeover. Wale could be seen on the paper cups, on T-shirts and hand-towels and taped to the walls, alongside Al Hirschfeld caricatures of Elaine and George. The menus were branded with his face and song titles: “The Middle Finger Cheeseburger,” “The Omelette About Nothing,” the “Girls on Drugs Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich.” Twice, the rapper circled the room, joking with writers – “Don’t come here and hit on girls” – and Hot 97 personalities before engaging in light Q&A with Rap Radar‘s Elliott Wilson. DJ Drama pushed through to the back, as did industry heavyweights Todd Moscowitz and Julie Greenwald. Rick Ross squeezed into a booth, casually breaking New York’s anti-smoking laws while flaunting a fur coat dyed burgundy. He paired Belaire Rosé with salad and took a phone call from Diddy mid-way through.
Of course, the gathering wasn’t for nothing – Wale played music, too. “This is just a preview, not for review,” he said in introducing the album, which apparently is still being recorded. Ten songs were played: He described the direction as “transparent,” saying, “I did enough to show I’m a good musician in my first three albums, now I’m in a place where it’s like, ‘OK, what do you have to say?'” On “The Helium Balloon (featuring Seinfeld)” he says, “First you get picked up, then you get picked apart,” and on “The Pessimist,” he calls himself “America’s dream and nightmare, in the same being.” So yes, Wale still feels under-appreciated, but he also addresses new themes (a miscarriage, broken relationships) and new sounds. Another stand-out, “Girls on Drugs,” co-starring a ghostly flip of Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep,” had been kicked around for a while and was finally written in “15 minutes while waiting for the Uber to show up.” Though swirling and oily, it’s his most exciting song. “I knew it was a hit when Meek Mill fucked with it,” he said.
When Wilson called for Ross to hop on “Success,” a bombastic Just Blaze-like production, Wale laughed it off, saying he stole Ross’s ad-lib for it already. There are winks at Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper” and Groove Theory’s “Tell Me,” and on “The Need to Know,” SZA covers Musiq Soulchild’s “Just Friends” under a cloud of echos. Later, playing “The White Shoes,” Wale proudly noted that he was the one singing. The production has that new car smell, light and ethereal, inspired by Jerry once saying, “I don’t know. [White shoes] make me happy.” (And, as the Earth revolves around shoes in Wale’s universe, he says, “I go to Texas for the no-Timberland weather” on “The One Time in Houston,” which is otherwise filled with xans, black bottles and droopy-eyed sex.) As is tradition, most songs feature some sort of Seinfeld inclusion, either from 2015 Jerry or his Nineties counterpart, his voice filtered and glitchy as if from an old VHS tape.
Throughout the night, he gave plenty of thanks, shouting out the fans for sticking by him and Rick Ross for allowing Wale to be Wale. “Interscope would never let me put out an album like this. They’d be too afraid. Ross lets me be me.” Ross, for his part, congratulated the man he calls Wallace on a job well done. He had turned Nothing into, well, a thing.