Wiz Khalifa's nonchalant rise to the top | Music Essay | Indy Week

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Wiz Khalifa's nonchalant rise to the top



Before a performance at East Carolina University last fall, rapper Wiz Khalifa, as is his wont, encouraged prospective attendees of that night's stop on the Waken Baken Tour to "fall thru wit ur finest plant life." That is, as he posted on his Twitter account, bring your weed. Soon after that show, and just as his soon-to-be mega-hit "Black and Yellow" began picking up steam, he was arrested for possession of 60 grams of marijuana.

Wiz posted bail by the morning and kept doing the same thing: smoking, touring and rapping. By February of this year, "Black and Yellow" was the No. 1 song in the country. This week, as Wiz comes to the Triangle to perform at the Raleigh Amphitheater, he also releases the much anticipated Rolling Papers, his third album and arguably the first major-label rap album of any consequence to come out this year. Ergo, the biggest rapper in the country is a giggling, tatted-up, skinny-as-shit stoner from Pittsburgh. Wiz Khalifa's scrappy approach to success—unfazed by setbacks or an arrest, steadfastly affable, an unaffected party rapper who's become a bona fide rap superstar—is pretty much unprecedented.

Let's start with "Say Yeah," Wiz's minor 2007 hit. The song, which sampled Alice DeeJay's progressive trance cheese-fest "Better Off Alone," would fit right in with hip-hop and R&B's current obsession with four-to-the-floor dance. It came a little too early for that, though, and instead sat around on rap dorks' iTunes. His album never arrived; and in 2009, Wiz left his label, Warner Brothers. To stay current, he began releasing online mixtapes for free and collaborating with similar-minded rappers like former Cash Money Records member Curren$y. He ended 2009 with the aptly titled Deal Or No Deal on Pittsburgh-based Rostrum Records. In 2010, he went on the Deal Or No Deal tour with Yelawolf, another major-label reject who eventually reinvented himself thanks to the grassroots of the Internet.

Last year, when he rolled through North Carolina twice, the success he'd found was shocking. It came without the aid of conventional promotion, yet two sold-out rooms stuffed full of very young (and therefore, very Internet-savvy) kids screamed along to songs that were far away from the radio playlists. In July, Wiz signed with Atlantic Records, returning to the majors with "Black and Yellow." Though produced by Norwegian pop producers Stargate (Rihanna's "Only Girl (in the World)" and Katy Perry's "Firework"), "Black and Yellow" is an ode to his hometown of Pittsburgh. It boasts the same airy, tingling sounds Wiz has always rapped over; that is, it was a lot like his mixtape tracks.

Rolling Papers contains a bit more give-and-take (particularly in its hook-filled second half), but it could easily be another free mixtape. There are no big names and no female guests belting out sexy hooks. The only guests are Too Short (the father to Wiz's nasally hedonistic rapping style), his pot-rap pal Curren$y and Chevy Woods, a member of Wiz's rap crew, Taylor Gang. Most of the production is appropriately hazy and blissed-out. Wiz raps pretty much only about partying. Same as he ever was.

Indeed, the same gleefully immature goof who tweets about "plant life" and then gets busted for possession that very night begins his major-label debut with "When I'm Gone." It's his four-minute boast about wasting all his money as soon as possible on—yeah, you guessed right—weed and girls. Like most of Wiz's career, Rolling Papers sounds more like the musical big leagues entering Wiz's laid-back, faded world—and thankfully, finally not the other way around.

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