Even though it took place in lower Manhattan, the surprise release party for D.C.-bred rapper Wale’s newest album, The Album About Nothing, at S.O.B.’s last night felt like a homecoming.

The venue, packed full of fans with promo posters and Seinfeld-themed snap backs, had an air of excitement that gave an impression that the prodigal son that finally made it was returning to put on a show for his day one fans. Looking in, this may have seemed odd coming from a New York crowd. But, as the Maybach Music MC pointed out numerous times throughout the night, the Big Apple is where many of his humble beginnings in the music industry took place. It’s where he would record some of his first hits and where he would first sit down with Jay Z to discuss signing a deal with Roc Nation. It’s also, as surprise guest J. Cole (more on this in a second) stated on stage, where Wale’s dreams were crushed following the disappointing release of his debut album, Attention Deficit. Last night marked his triumphant return to where he almost lost it all—a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Unfortunately, the energy of the show never really matched the admiration felt in the room before things kicked off.

Wale never really seemed comfortable during the hour-and-a-half-long set, seemingly due to a number of reasons. The biggest being that he continually expressed frustration at the audio levels of his microphone, at one point forgoing lyrics to a song to yell “Turn my mic up!” repeatedly on beat instead. His frustration was understandable; his backing band, consisting of a drummer, a go-go percussionist and a bass player, often drowned out his voice. Other things, like the crowd’s tame reactions to some songs or even the skin-tight t-shirt he was wearing (“I know this shit is too tight, man,” he half-jokingly said when he got on stage) seemed to add to his visible uneasiness.

But perhaps the biggest factor was the crowd’s reactions to the show’s special guests. The loudest cheers of the night, by far, came when newly crowned superstar J. Cole was brought on stage to perform his and Wale’s newest collaboration, “The Pessimist.” Things got even rowdier when Cole stayed on to perform “No Role Modelz” off his beloved 2014 Forest Hills Drive album. A few songs later, fellow Maybach Music rapper Meek Mill came out to similar ovation. Things hit a boiling point when Meek performed “Dreams And Nightmares (Intro),” which seems to be approaching legendary status as one of the greatest hip-hop intros ever.

Of course, all this was partly expected; bringing out surprise guests always garners a certain level of excitement from the crowd. But seeing the confidence of both Cole and Meek on stage in comparison to Wale’s apprehension, you couldn’t help but think the MCs were on different planes in some way.

With that said, it wasn’t a bad night for Wale. Despite the hiccups, he still managed to go through his back catalogue with ease, demonstrating his ever-improving talents as an MC. His skill became especially apparent when he would raise his fist, signaling to his band to cut out the music so he could rhyme a capella. Everyone let out a collective “wooo” when he spat the first verse of “The Success” off The Album About Nothing: “D.C. mean 'don’t come'/A 'dick choke' if your ho cum,” he barked. He also received a large amount of love for the more trap- and club-influenced songs he’s been apart of, like Dew Baby’s “Loyalty” and Waka Flocka’s “No Hands.” Elsewhere, excitement came at the expense of cheap thrills, like when Wale took a shot at Mark Ronson for no longer picking up his phone (Ronson signed Wale to his first record deal in 2006) or when a representative of Maybach Music showed up on stage to give Wale a plaque commemorating his achievements, but MMG boss Rick Ross was nowhere to be found. In the end, it was moments like these that stood out as some of the most memorable from the night. —Reed Jackson

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