By Brad Wete
Updated August 17, 2010 at 07:27 PM EDT

Image Credit: Erika Goldring/Retna LtdIf success in the music business is strictly based on albums sales and radio play, Wale is a failure. In 2008 the witty rhymer and Washington, D.C. native was riding high off the success of his Mixtape About Nothing, a charming set created around samples from NBC’s classic sitcom Seinfeld.

With a critically acclaimed mixtape in hand, Wale seemed set, and anticipation built for his debut album, Attention Deficit. Though critics generally adored it, oddly enough, fans didn’t pay attention when it came out last winter. The effort led by its Lady Gaga-assisted single sold a measly 28,000 copies in its first week.

But rather than sulk in defeat, Wale regrouped. He dropped out of the limelight and even took a break from his frenetic Twitter updates to record new music. And the time away was well worth it. Two weeks ago, he returned with the follow-up to his Seinfeld-inspired tape, More About Nothing. Another stellar offering, the free tape has amassed more than 300,000 downloads. This explains how he accomplished such a feat last night (August 16), selling out New York’s Highline Ballroom with his A Show About Nothing, hosted by Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson.

Clad in a Chicago Bulls fitted cap, a black polo shirt and jeans, the 25-year-old Wale arrived on stage as horns from D.C.’s premiere go-go band U.C.B. blared behind him. Wale opened with “The MC” from his latest tape, then followed with “Mirror” from his album. Ever the showman, he pulled two camera-wielding fans out of the crowd to record his performance from both sides of the stage.

Next came the aforementioned lead single to his debut set, “Chillin’.” “Across the pond, they all know us,” sang U.C.B.’s Tre. And it’s true: Wale’s managed to build his name and brand without commercial appeal. In 2007 he performed alongside Mark Ronson at England’s Glastonbury Festival, and this year he earned a spot at England’s Wireless Festival.

U.C.B. was magnificent throughout the night. Their keys twinkled during “World Tour,” and the blend of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” on the second verse of “The Breeze” was masterful.

Roc Nation label mate J. Cole came out as a surprise guest to perform his rousing verse on “Beautiful Bliss,” then he launched into his own newly released single “Blow Up.” “Can I do some more s*** off the mixtape?” Wale asked the crowd as Cole left. With their approval, “The Soup,” a play off of Seinfeld’s infamous Soup Nazi followed. Wale closed the show with another guest appearance, New York heavyweight Fabolous on “Pretty Girls.” But it was the hook from “The Soup” that rang loudest and most true Monday night.

“Respect is like food /What it do/ I’m eating real good / No soup for you,” he rapped. His hip-hop peers Kid Cudi and Drake both have achieved mainstream success in varying forms—boasting chart-topping hits and endorsement deals. Wale has neither. But playing to a crowd of 700 fans who knew all the lyrics to a mixtape that came out weeks ago—with no major label backing, mind you—he’s obviously earned the respect of many. He’s a talent that shines regardless of sales. There’s no failure in that.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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