Arguably, the most surprising aspect of Wiz Khalifa’s out-of-nowhere success over the past year is that teenage girls make up a large portion of his fanbase. “Something your little sister would listen to” may be an insult favored among music geeks, but in the case of Wiz, the saying holds true, and it’s not really an insult. Despite all the talk of music’s fractured landscape, here is a rapper who appeals to both Gen X rap heads and Miley-esque millennials. What’s more, Wiz has reached the sweet spot of cross-generational love without pandering. He hasn’t tapped Haley Williams for a hook. He doesn’t have a history as a teenage sitcom star. He just raps about cars, girls and weed over slick, pulsing production, and the people are going crazy for it.
For the most part Wiz’s major label debut Rolling Papers follows the script of his mixtapes Kush & OJ and Burn After Rolling. In addition to the megahit “Black and Yellow,” songs like “The Race” and “Star of the Show” are highlights of laid-back weed talk, effortless hooks and spacey, synthy beats. Wiz Khalifa may not have a lot to say, but he’s so good at saying nothing that the shallowness of the content ceases to matter. He embodies rapping as pure flow: never static, veering between cadences, breathless. A caveat to this malleable style is that you live or die by the quality of the beats. But as his mixtapes have shown, Wiz has an ear for production, and that’s further proven by Rolling Papers.
But I doubt Wiz will continue to avoid accusations of demographic pandering. How else to describe “No Sleep,” a corny up-all-night anthem that has more uses of the word “party” than an Andrew WK song? The track feels like an attempt to win the market in graduation-party playlists. And then there are relationship songs like the lovey-dovey “Roll Up” and the end-of-the-road “Get Your Shit,” in which Wiz tries to present himself as a more stoned, less introspective version of Drake. These songs aren’t annoying or bad as they are obvious, which detracts from Wiz’s aura of could-give-a-fuck braggadocio. Where before Wiz’s audience came to him, now he’s coming to them, in the process losing quality and credibility.
Maybe it’s my lowered expectations for major-label rap debuts, or the fact that I never had Wiz pegged for out-and-out greatness, but Rolling Papers sure feels like a qualified success. The album’s high points earn Wiz forgiveness for his mistakes. “The Race” is one of the best rap songs of the year. I won’t complain about hearing “Black and Yellow” for the thousandth time either. Even if “No Sleep” assaults the airwaves this summer and has every frat dude and bottle blonde singing along to the chorus of “No job and no sleep and live it up like it’s the weekend,” I’ll do my best not to begrudge Wiz or his swelling bank account. He’s having his moment, and he’s enjoying it. When your popularity relies on the capricious taste of teenagers, who knows how long it will last?
Wiz Khalifa spent a number of years in the indie circuit after he entered the rap game in 2005. His first two albums, 2006's Show And Prove and 2009's Deal Or No Deal, were released through his deal with Rostrum Records, a label based in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Following his sophomore release, though, the weed-loving rapper saw his fan base grow exponentially as he began selling out shows around the United States. His popularity soon exploded in 2010, when he signed with Atlantic Records and released "Black and Yellow." The single was his biggest to date and was the lead into his major label debut, Rolling Papers. The album includes features from Curren$y and Too $hort and production from I.D. Labs, Jim Jonson, and, of course, StarGate, aka the guys behind "Black and Yellow."