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Wiz slows down, lightens up on major label debut

Christopher Collum | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

At surface level, Wiz Khalifa seems to perfectly epitomize the stereotypical hedonistic rap star lifestyle, consisting of little else besides alcohol, drugs, women, cars and braggadocio about all of the above.  He sounds comfortably at ease in this atmosphere. This is intriguing given that, despite having a No. 1 single about a month ago with “Black and Yellow,” he’s a very new arrival in the mainstream.

Twenty-three-year-old Khalifa, whose birth name is Cameron Jibril Thomaz, built up a substantial following first in his native Pittsburgh and then nationally among a certain demographic — namely college-age kids — through a string of official mix tapes and two independent albums between 2005 and last year. In those albums and mix tapes he seemed largely concerned with two things, both of which are also present on “Rolling Papers.”

First, he raps often about his hedonistic lifestyle, and especially about marijuana and all things related to it. (He was arrested and briefly held in prison after a concert at Eastern Carolina University last November when police found weed on his tour bus). Second, he is very proud of his city, and his Taylor Gang “crew” and will tell you all about it—a theme prevalent from his first single “Pittsburgh Sound” to “Black and Yellow.”

While never seriously regarded as a top-notch emcee, Wiz has been lauded in the past for his clever lyrics, generally delivered nonchalantly over airy beats. This, coupled with both artists’ notorious love of weed, has led to comparisons to Snoop Dogg. These comparisons have been strengthened by the rappers’ recent collaborations, including on the official “Black and Yellow” remix.

So then, one would think that an album called “Rolling Papers”, sporting album art that features Wiz in a cloud of smoke he is exhaling, would not take a huge step away from Khalifa’s previous endeavors. And that is mostly true.

Opener “When I’m Gone” sets the pace for most of the album as Wiz proclaims, “I’m gonna spend it all / Why wait for another day? / …’Cause I can’t take it with me when I’m gone.”  Second track “On My Level” is another of Wiz’s stoned-out slow-moving party anthems that have been found in spades on his previous releases.

The aforementioned Pittsburgh anthem “Black and Yellow” is followed by “Roll Up,” the second radio single. Despite the title, “Roll Up” is not at all a weed song, but rather a mid-tempo R&B love number. In the hook Wiz spouts such phrases as “Whenever you need me…I’ll be there shortly,” and “I’ll be your best friend and you’ll be my homey.”

That’s practically monogamous for a man who has developed a rather promiscuous reputation, and while it wouldn’t sound strange coming from, say, Usher, coming from Wiz it just feels wrong.

There are signs elsewhere that this may not be a change of heart from Wiz, but rather his label, Atlantic Records, pandering to radio in the attempt to create more smash hits. “Fly Solo” and album closer “Cameras” both are obvious attempts to manufacture a hit, with the former featuring Wiz rapping (kind of) over an acoustic guitar-driven pop-rock track.

Just as with “Roll Up,” both of those songs are pretty innocuous pop numbers that wouldn’t be too bad coming from most anyone else. But they don’t seem natural coming from Wiz.

The other main problem with “Rolling Papers” is that it is far too slow—the middle part of the album gets bogged down in mid-tempo songs that sort of ooze along. This might make for good listening for one under the influence of marijuana, but for the average listener it just gets boring.

This is the third time in the last year that a critically acclaimed underground rapper has had an album on Atlantic Records that has sounded to a large extent like a ploy for mainstream success. B.o.B’s debut “The Adventures of Bobby Ray,” and Lupe Fiasco’s “Lasers,” released two weeks ago, are the other examples.

However “Rolling Papers” does have redemptive qualities. When Wiz actually raps it’s generally pretty entertaining, especially on songs such as “Rooftops” (featuring likeminded New Orleans emcee Curren$y) where Wiz raps about his rise from the underground, saying, “Used to not be allowed in the building, now we on the rooftop.”

All in all, “Rolling Papers” is disappointing, but it’s hard to blame Wiz Khalifa for that. Besides, in all likelihood he has more than this ahead of him — whether he returns to his stylized breed of stoner rap or not, Wiz is certain to continue to grow in popularity.