Wiz Khalifa rolls out with new album, 'Rolling Papers'

By Mark Thomson

Say Yeah, Wiz Khalifa’s 2007 Alice Deejay-sampling weekend anthem, in spite of its limited subject matter, was a great song. It was one of those songs that didn’t get that much radio play but got heavy rotation amongst the more musically inclined high schoolers. I remember repeatedly hitting the replay button when I’d jam to the song in my room. The hook was infectious, the beat was outstanding, and no matter how superficial the words were, the flow was incredibly dope. In theory, it really shouldn’t have been that good of a song. Khalifa, then a 20-year old upstart rapper, didn’t really impress anyone with his lyrical ability. His content wasn’t original, more along the lines of the “money and girls” rap that dominated airwaves at the time (remember when every song had Akon or T-Pain singing the chorus?). The original song, “Better Off Alone”, was a hit in its own right. Almost without exception, every time a rapper attempts to sample a dance-pop/house track, it comes out with disastrous results (I’m looking at you Pitbull). Yet “Say Yeah” was a definite improvement over the original song. It was difficult for me to understand why. I was at a stage in my life where I was entering my music snob stage, when I felt that the music I was listening to was better than the music being played on the radio. “Say Yeah” represented everything my 16-year-old self felt was wrong with the state of hip-hop, but I couldn’t stop listening. I put it off as an anomaly and, after I got bored with the song, went back to Talib Kweli.

Over the years since then, Khalifa’s come out with numerous mixtapes and great songs. I couldn’t understand it. How could a rapper with such little lyrical ability have such a solid discography? His subject matter could be easily summarized in: “I smoke the best weed, I sleep with the hottest women (usually the girlfriend of the listener), and get money”. But despite all this repetition of activities I had never partaken in, something about the production, flow, or chorus always kept me listening. “The Planes” (not to be confused Khalifa’s “This Plane”, another outstanding song in its own right), off of 2009’s “How Fly” mixtape was my jam for a good month. The entirety of the “Burn After Rolling” mixtape was quite impressive, with “The Thrill” being the standout track.

However, none of the mixtapes were as notable as 2010’s “Kush and Orange Juice” which was where the majority of the “Taylor Gang” (the name of his fanbase) was introduced to Khalifa. This tape featured songs such as the strangely captivating “Mezmorized” and the Demi Lovato-sampling “We’re Done”. Since then, all eyes were on him to come out with a hit single, which he promptly delivered with the chart-topper “Black and Yellow”. He announced a release date, March 29th, for his major label debut album, “Rolling Papers” and the hype surrounding Khalifa reached a new high. Personally, I was indifferent in my anticipation, as the two singles that he released, “Roll Up” and the aforementioned “Black and Yellow” lost their replay value shortly after the initial listen. With tempered expectations, the album didn’t disappoint, although it’s far from a classic.

I enjoyed the first song on the album, “When I’m Gone”. It starts “Rolling Papers” with a simplistic, yet powerful, piano melody before Khalifa begins to rap. He’s rapping about the same concepts as usual, but something about the chorus resonated with me: “I’m gonna spend it all/why wait for another day?/Imma take all this money and blow it all away/Cause I can’t take it when I’m gone”. He attempts to justify the lavish lifestyle that he enjoys by getting introspective about why he spends money: he can’t spend it once he’s dead, so why not live large? That being said, I’m not about to drop out of Macalester to party all day and night.

Shortly after “When I’m Gone” came “Black and Yellow” on the track list. Khalifa’s hit single is a decent song in its own right, but after hearing it 239,803,948,230,948 times everywhere I went, I grew to hate it. Every rapper and his cousin came out with a remix (including Lil Wayne’s bandwagon-riding ode to the Green Bay Packers, “Green and Yellow”). The beat is pretty solid (producer trio Stargate having been responsible for Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Rihanna’s “What’s My Name”) but Khalifa’s rapping sounds pretty uninspired to be honest: “Hear them haters talk/but there’s nothing you can tell ’em/just made a million/got another million on my schedule”. His flow is on point, at least.

Khalifa attempts his version of word play on the only other Stargate-produced track on the album, “Roll Up”. Typically with a Wiz Khalifa song, you’d expect this song to be about rolling up a joint, but instead he’s talking about rolling up in his car to pick up a girl. It’s pretty clever, I guess, but lyricism was never his strong point. This song’s a blatant attempt at commercial appeal that is probably successful in that regard (it currently sits at #29 in the Billboard Hot 100), but it’s not a great song. It’s pretty much all chorus and nothing else.

Other than these two songs, I actually found myself liking most of the other tracks. “Fly Solo”, a genre-crossing track, has been stuck in my head for a couple of days now. Khalifa raps over acoustic guitar while adding a pretty solid (albeit repetitive) chorus. Like always, he doesn’t cover any groundbreaking material lyrically, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s catchy, and that’s enough for me.

The Jim Jonsin-produced and Too $hort-featuring “On My Level” utilizes a spacy beat and killer drum kicks to great effect. It’s a great song for the weekends and provides the listener with a ready-made boast for any occasion (“Homie, I’m on my level!”). I didn’t really listen to the song for the lyrics (a bit of a reoccurring theme for the album), but when I did, I was slightly underwhelmed: “Gin got me drunk as f*ck stumbling out the bar/plus I’m struggling tryna find the keys to my car/cause I be going hard”. Like I said, Khalifa’s not exactly Jay Electronica when it comes to story telling. Too-$hort’s cameo (one of only three features on the album, a bit of rarity for a major label debut hip-hop album in this day and age) is 40 seconds of expletive-laden rhymes that probably makes this song unsafe for listeners under the age of 14.

At time of publication, it appears that Khalifa has another hit on his hands with “No Sleep”. In its first week on the Hot 100, it’s already at #6 on the charts. It’s written in the same mold as “Black and Yellow” and “Roll Up” in that it’s supposed to be a radio hit, but unlike the other two songs it’s actually a good kind of catchy. I could easily picture myself listening to this in preparation for going out, as I really liked the upbeat chorus. Khalifa’s singing is a bit like Kid Cudi’s in that they’re both not “good” singers by any reasonable standard, but there’s something about their voices that’s oddly captivating. They both have a soulful quality that’s hard to explain, although instead of singing about emotional issues like Cudi, Khalifa has a much more upbeat subject matter.

Although “No Sleep” is a solid track, my favorite song on the album was “The Race”. The instrumental is one of the best of 2011 in my opinion. Khalifa wails during the chorus, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but actually works. Like I said before, you can really hear the emotion in his voice when he sings, even if the subject matter is shallow. It’s a versatile song, as I’ve listened to this song while working out, walking to class, and going to sleep all in the past two days.

The driving influence of “Rolling Papers” is the choruses of the songs. They’re almost all quality and utilize Khalifa’s limited vocal range to great effect. His flows are top-notch, as he’s able to switch them up with ease. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a great lyrical rapper, but I could definitely hear a much more refined sound from his “Say Yeah” days. He still hasn’t graduated from his juvenile subject matter (seriously, how m
any songs can he rap about weed and girls?), but I don’t think that matters to his fan base. If I want to hear someone rapping about how great his life is, I’ll listen to Khalifa (among other rappers). If I want to hear someone rapping about how life is a struggle, I’ll listen to someone else, simple as that. I’ve always had the opinion that Khalifa makes songs that I like to listen to when I’m in the mood. This album has done nothing to change that.