We take a look at whether Wiz Khalifa could be attempting to tap into the headspace that initially made him an underground sensation.
Hip-hop is a fickle game. One minute, you’re championed as the next in line for immortality and a lengthy career. The next, you’re rendered passé by the same fans that had enthusiastically shepherded you from the underground to the promised land. Upon his arrival in the public eye, Cameron Jibril Thomaz- better known as Wiz Khalifa, was the embodiment of the drive and tenacity that the hip-hop community rallies around. After rescinding his Warner Bros deal in the development stage due to issues with the “major label machine,” the Pittsburgh MC’s affable personality and inexhaustible work ethic endeared him to thousands of “Taylors” as he made his ascent to the top. After acclaimed mixtapes such as Kush & OrangeJuice, Flight School andBurn After Rolling, the Rostrum Records-backed artist chose to double-down on his output, making himself an unavoidable Rap Blog fixture in the process.
"I’m learning so much every day," he told DJ Infamous during a 2010 radio appearance, "I came up out of my situation and now I’m where I’m at now. So, all the hard work that I put in is teachin’ me more and more. I’m just trying to stay creative and stay building on top of that. That’s the motivation. To just do new things. Bigger things and better things," Wiz insisted.
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Riding high after Kush & OJ besieged the internet and earning a place in the famously stacked 2010 XXL Freshmen Class, the question became moreso when Khalifa would achieve mainstream success, instead of if. Sure enough, within months of tracks such as "Mezmorized" and the Big K.R.I.T & Curren$y-aided "Glass House" reaching our collective eardrums, Atlantic brokered a deal with Rostrum and set Wiz up with a new, more receptive distributor. By the time he released "Black And Yellow" that same year, Wiz had clearly, and firmly, grasped hold of the worldwide fame that had previously eluded him.
With a joint in his mouth and a Steelers cap fixed on his head, Wiz captured the zeitgeist with his anthemic breakout hit— not to mention the subsequent “G Mix” to come— and now had the unflinching glare of the entire hip-hop world upon him as he prepared 2011’s Rolling Papers. Although it’s defined as his third full-length project, his first record on Atlantic had the sense of anticipation that normally accompanies a debut. Fresh from commandeering the world’s attention with an undyingly catchy track, the project was make-or-break in terms of defining whether Wiz would be consigned to the ranks of a one-hit-wonder or if he’d manage to stick the landing. Luckily for him and TGOD devotees around the world, it was the latter.
While it may not be a defining document of the time and space in which it was created, Rolling Papers did its job in cementing Pittsburgh’s newest export as a real contender in the commercial hip-hop sphere. When the middling follow-up O.N.I.F.C emerged, Wiz became more entrenched in the opulent lifestyle that he could now afford, and one of hip-hop culture’s most dreaded pejorative terms began to be lobbied at him-- falling off.
Aggrieved by his tonal shift towards more homogenously poppy output, older fans seemed to view Wiz’s success as detrimental to the artistic clarity that he’d possessed. Then, as he geared up to release 2014’s Blacc Hollywood, the title of his fifth album became a scathingly accurate depiction of the preoccupied headspace he was in at that period of his life and career.
Feature-heavy, the record saw Wiz side-line his usual wry charisma in favour of sure-fire safe bets and listless collaborations. Yet at the same time, it represented a trade-off between commercial success and critical apathy that so many pop stars endure, becoming his most pilloried album and the first project to debut at number one on the Billboards all in one fell swoop. Propelled to the forefront by another worldwide smash in "We Dem Boyz," it was at this stage where the accusations of a "fall off" began to pick up momentum.
As his artistic glories became more and more obscured by his biggest hits, last year’s Rolling Papers 2 marked a turning point in which Wiz attempted to recapture the essence of what propelled him to greatness in the first place.
"I still wanna create, and I still have tons of ideas," he told Forbes in January of 2018. "I’m a musical person so my words are my gift. Finding ways to get better is really the exciting part."
Defined as a project that was "as important as the first time" after an extended period in hiatus, RP2 served as a scouting mission to see what it would take for him to rediscover the hunger that brought Wiz to hip-hop’s hearts and minds from 2009 onwards.
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Considering he was never in danger of flopping from a commercial standpoint, Wiz’s decision to try and revert back to his roots was one that ultimately boiled down to two things. Recapturing his love of creating music and his own sense of self. Now, almost 13 years on from the day that he released his debut record Show And Prove, there’s a real sense that a renaissance is underway.
Over the course of the last four weeks, Wiz Khalifa has transformed into a Soundcloud rapper. Not in the sense that he’s adhering to the musical hallmarks that are synonymous with that term, but that he’s using it as a platform to casually release new music at an exponential rate. All uniformly released with the same marijuana leaf cover art, Wiz has travelled the length and breadth of modern hip-hop over 26 tracks and counting. From chart-optimized outings such as sultry slow jam “Legendary” and the G-funk tinged "Shouldn’t Matter" with YG, through to the jazzy experimentation of "Tequila Shots In the AM" and a re-tread of the classic Taylor Gang chemistry with Chevy Woods on "Have Fun," Wiz’s spree has been as inexplicable as it has been entertaining. Not released for monetary value but for a rekindled love affair with the art of rapping, this informal collection is not only of a consistently high standard but feels like a subconsciously-issued olive branch to the fans that felt shunned by his pop chart success.
As if that wasn’t enough, the stark resemblance that this bears to the days of his pre-album mixtapes and prolific levels of output would suggest that the Wiz of Old is well and truly back. Initially positioned as Khalifa’ mentor during his early days at Rostrum, A&R manager Benjy Ginsberg-- whom Wiz has since sued over "commercial exploitation" discussed Wiz’s penchant for prepping for a new major project with a deluge of material during a 2011 interview with HitQuarters:
"From a strictly business standpoint, it seems counterintuitive to flood the market with ten new free songs when in about a week or two you’re going to want to sell an album that you’ve spent a lot of money and time making," Ginsberg explained. "But Wiz knows his fanbase better than we do - he’s their age, goes to the same places they go, consumes music the same way they do - and so we decided to listen to him and try it."
Armed with an innate knowledge of how and why he garnered his fanbase’s devotion in the first place, Ginsberg’s remarks and the recent spree of releases point to Wiz Khalifa finally reclaiming the reins of his career and setting sail for a return to the hip-hop universe’s good graces.