Features
28.03.2011, Words by Charlie Jones

Rolling Papers

Wiz Khalifa’s got the best laugh in music. Last month, The Fader interviewed the 23-year-old rapper, and right after introducing himself by saying “I’m Wiz Khalifa, and I’m the biggest artist in the country right now,” he busted it out. Halfway between a giggle and an exhale, it’s an easy laugh: amazed, assured, easy. It’s his way of telling us that the fact that he’s the biggest artist in the country is both totally crazy and totally expected.

It’s hard not to be happy for him. Someone once said that The National had your back, but with Wiz, you’ve got his. From getting dropped by Warner Bros to having his mixtape ‘Kush and Orange Juice’ come up as the top trending topic on Twitter to the 2 million downloads of his major label debut single, every single member of the exponentially expanding Taylor Gang has been gunning for him. And it’s his awareness of this affection and his sheer heart that makes ‘Rolling Papers’, his major label debut, the most enjoyable rap album in an age.

He grew up an army brat, following his family around the world, and there’s something of the assured outsider about this record. On previous releases, it sometimes felt like he was finding his feet, but on ‘Rolling Paper’s’, he’s grown into himself. It’s just so damn assured. He’s looking around at his life on the cusp of megastardom, smart enough to sit back and enjoy his success, bright enough not to take it seriously. He raps about girls, but he also raps about love. He raps about haters, but decides it’s better to ignore them. He’s Wiz Khalifa – why bother fronting? He raps about his cash but always from the detached view of what monetary success actually is, rather than some brand reel-off. There’s a moment when he says, with a brief hint of understandable sourness, “Used to not be allowed in the building / Now we up on the rooftop”. It’s not the only place race is touched on, though as ever with Wiz, it’s all in the unsaid, all in the unstressed. He doesn’t need to labour the point – he can sketch it, trusting the listener to get him. “Young, gifted … And making millions. Yeah, you heard it – motherfucking millions,” he says, and it’s not bragging, but with a smile to himself, as if he’s turning around the idea of a million over in his head.

Wiz ultimately thinks a million dollars is a nice idea because it is a nice idea, and it’s this ability to bring in the listener by not insulting them with front, or, even worse, self-pity that makes this album. He can rationally look at his wealth and then enjoy it, maybe, because he tasked so damn hard to get it – he brought out five mixtapes, one independent album and went on three tours since getting dropped in 2009. Wiz is a musician of extraordinary gifts but he grafts and, as much as this is a record about fame, success, (and weed), it’s also about the joys of a decent work ethic, living within your means and self-pride. He’s proud of it, too, and when he raps “Look back over your achievements, you work hard so you deserve it,” on Cameras, you feel just as ecstatic as he does.

The production bursts in the same way. On The Race, Big Jerm and E Dan have created a glittery, summery track of perfect, deep beauty and poise, with delicate, soft keys playing over a beat that thumps rather than drops. Brandon Carrier’s Hopes And Dreams is a track made from half-strums, soft chords and lovely bursts of sound over a stuttering, barely there beat. Almost every track on this album has a hook to die for but they come subtly, with tracks sounding more like breezy sketches than the algorithmically hype tracks of so much mainstream rap. Like his lyrics, the tone doesn’t shift a great deal from slightly stunned happiness, and nothing really mind-boggling profound is wrestled with, but to cuss that would miss this album’s point by a country mile. It’s not that fun and graft is all there is to life. But it’s all that’s important, when all’s said and done.

Using mainly DJs from his hometown of Pittsburgh – all up-and-comers aside from pop producers Benny Blanco and Stargate – is a statement of faith in a new generation of producers unhindered by the past or their microscene. This sheer freshness is carried through with his flow. “No disrespect to niggas who went before me … But now I just stunt on my own, now I just stunt on my own” goes the chorus to the album’s highlight, The Race, and it’s not empty braggadocio. Though he has a hereditary tree that leads back to the sunny, easy experimentalism of early rap, the foggy bounce of Three 6 Mafia and the breezy intelligence of early Kanye, he really is doing his own thing, treading his own path, not even competing in the race. Often, his raps don’t even sound rapped they are so loose. Mid-line, he’ll almost drift off, slow right down, speed up, start singing or speaking, or just drop and idea and move on to the next without pausing for breath. Check out this verse from The Race: “Something like a contractor building from the ground up / Now just / Twist up this weed / Realise that you are in the presence of a G / Don’t fuck up my paper meaning my cheese / Or the ones I use to roll up my trees.” He pauses for a split-second and then drawls “Fuck it, you know what I mean,” and it’s the most important seven words of this important, subtle, fun record.

8/10

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