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On 'Blacc Hollywood,' Wiz is holding himself back

Atlantic

By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published August 17, 2014

I really want to like Wiz Khalifa. He’s made some undeniable pop-rap classics. His 2011 breakthrough release Rolling Papers is one of the best party albums in recent memory, and even though he’s never been the most technically proficient rapper, Khalifa does a good enough job of surrounding himself with talented producers that he’s had no problem filling arenas and scoring hits. Furthermore, in the most earnest moments of his new album Blacc Hollywood he shares thoughtful details of his unlikely success that make you want to root for him. In “House in the Hills” he laments that the media focuses on his marijuana use and “not the fact there’s not a lot where I lived 25 and not dead” and later in the song he mentions, “I try to do all that I can to make sure that my son grow up without having to see half of the stuff I've been through.” Blacc Hollywood is meant to be a celebration of the fact that Khalifa has managed to build a much better life than the one fate gave him.

What sinks this record, then? Let’s talk about the song that immediately follows “House in the Hills.” It’s called “Ass Drop,” and yes, the entire track is a lazily written ode to a woman’s derrière, with enough misogyny in the lyrics to make Big Sean blush. While Blacc Hollywood has a few good pop songs, and a couple of really heartfelt emotional gems, the fabric of the record is destroyed by the repetitive, materialistic, poorly-executed tracks that take up the majority of the album. Maybe that’s just what you’re supposed expect from a new Wiz Khalifa release, but even taken as nothing more than turn-off-your-brain-and-party Hip Hop, Blacc Hollywood feels second tier.

The big hit single here is “We Dem Boyz,” which is better than, but still pretty indicative of, most of the record. It’ll no doubt get the crowd hyped at his shows, and the repetitive but easy-to-dance-to beat is actually pretty infectious after multiple listens. It is a little bit underwhelming, though. When the music stops in the middle of the song and a girl’s voice says, “Oh my god that was amazing,” you’re sort of wondering what she’s talking about, since it’s really just Wiz sauntering through his old tested formula.

Aside from “We Dem Boyz,” Khalifa’s pop skills have taken a step backwards. Wiz seems to think that all he needs to do to create a hook is repeat a three-word phrase over and over and over again, and though after it’s drilled into your brain enough it may become somewhat catchy, it’s really not worth it. Even the average songs of Khalifa’s early work were catchier than these. Most of the beats of Blacc Hollywood are dull, and Wiz himself often seems like he’s on autopilot. When seasoned pop producers step in, like Dr. Luke does on “Stayin’ Out All Night,” things marginally improve as the production actually builds and teases before finally climaxing, but Khalifa keeps things flat with the uninspired chorus of “stayin’ out all night, stayin’ out all night, stayin’ out all night … ” The one exception is the Nicki Minaj-featuring “True Colors,” which was made by “Super Bass” hitmaker Kane Beatz. It’s the one attempt at a pop song that truly feels like a real pop song, and it closes the album by giving listeners a glimpse at classic Khalifa, even if it’s the always-awesome Minaj who steals the track with her 30-second plug for her upcoming The Pinkprint.

Khalifa is actually shown up by most of the featured rappers on the album, most obviously by Project Pat and Juicy J on “KK.” It’s good, then, that only of handful of songs contain guest verses. Wiz really displays confidence and swagger and all of the more straightforward hip-hop songs, but unfortunately, he has very little of note to say on any of them. He constantly, endlessly reiterates how much he smokes, which seems more and more immature the older he gets (Khalifa is now 26 and apparently still thinks it sounds cool to rap about how much he smokes while driving). If that wasn’t bad enough, on “The Sleaze,” he states “Fuck the rules” and “I’m sleazy as hell” in a cringe-worthy fake-tough-guy voice.

What ultimately saves Blacc Hollywood from being a near-total failure is the trio of songs where Wiz Khalifa tries his hand at Drake-esque self-reflection: “House in the Hills,” “Still Down” and “No Gain.” This is the kind of hip hop that Khalifa needs to pursue if he wants a long career. These are the tracks where Khalifa lets his guard down and actually talks about his rise to fame, his personal life and the harsh reality he left behind. Anytime someone uses talent and work ethic to rise high above the competition and make his or her dreams come true, it’s something to be celebrated. However, now that the celebration of Blacc Hollywood is over Wiz Khalifa has to decide what he wants to do. While sticking to “safe” hip hop and pop may seem appealing, Wiz is only going to be able to stick around if he follows his potential to make honest, emotional music.