Wiz Khalifa has made it. Call it fitting, then, that the majority of his third album has Wiz waxing poetic about this very fortunate twist of fate in his life: He’s famous now, and don’t you fucking forget it. He really couldn’t have picked a better city to be from during this particular football season, either — there’s no doubt “Black and Yellow” probably tripled the amount of exposure for himself, and for his newest album, Rolling Papers (Lil’ Wayne’s comical “Green and Yellow” rebuttle also probably didn’t hurt). But “Black and Yellow” was a smash, Super Bowl connections aside, without the convenient and marketable homie-reppin’-the-hometown associations. Like 2009’s Deal or No Deal, Rolling Papers wants to be a hit — these songs are asking for it, no shame. But the difference is this time — high quality or not — they kinda are hits.
There’s no question that Wiz has an exceptional ear for melody. A decent chunk of his hooks are addictive and aching to be played in the summer with the car windows rolled down. “Wake Up” has him musing on his rise to the top: “I came up in a big way / And I hardly ever sleep / Well it’s like a dream.” “Top Floor” is equal parts sexy R&B sizzler and lush synthesizer ballad. Wiz’s fanbase, the cutely dubbed “Taylor Gang” (in honor of Wiz’s kicks of choice, Chuck Taylors), will have nothing to complain about. But soon after the initial infatuation with Rolling Papers, the enamored feelings fade away, leaving listeners with an OK album from a newly famous rapper whose subject matter rarely deviates from hip hop’s Big Three: weed, bitches and money.
Oddly enough, Wiz hits the mark the most when he sings rather than raps (if you can call talking over a beat and occasionally guffawing “rapping”). Despite his shortage of clever wordplay, Wiz has succeeded in what Kid Cudi failed to do on Man on the Moon II — crafted the truly perfect stoner song. “The Race” has the same breezy sonics of his earlier minor hit, “The Thrill,” but where “The Thrill” gets you on your feet, “The Race” kicks back, lights a bong and smokes you out. “The Race” glides effortlessly with a synergistic grace, aided by a slow, buoyant beat and airy strings, right to the chorus where Wiz sings, triumphant: “I’m in the race / And takin’ the winner’s place / No foot on the brakes / One of the best, homie that’s what they call me.” But life’s not all champagne and toking up, as Wiz feels the growing pains that come with success: “It’s lonely at the top / got no company / so now I just stunt on my own.” Sounds rough.
It’s true that the vast majority of Rolling Papers reads like a carefully executed formula to crack the Top 40. But to be honest, a lot of it is successful by sheer virtue that Wiz has got something for everyone. He makes sure there’s a number-one hit (“Black and Yellow”), a party jam (“No Sleep”), one for the ladies (“Roll Up”) and one for the potheads (“The Race”). Can’t fault a guy for trying to please, right? Wrong. No ambition could ever excuse the presence of “Fly Solo.” This acoustic, gratingly sunny monstrosity cops the likes of B.o.B. and Travie McCoy so hard it could be considered copyright infringement. “Fly Solo” is as maddeningly catchy as it is atrociously generic. What is a jaunty acoustic guitar and Dispatch-esque chorus doing on a Wiz Khalifa record? Nothin’ good, that’s what.
It’s also no surprise that Wiz’s cheapo chart-grasping sound comes hand-in-hand with Rolling Papers being his first release under Atlantic Records. This really is — in every sense of the term — his mainstream debut. And after Atlantic’s shameless mangling of Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers last month, it all makes perfect sense. Major labels mean a major push for radio play. It also means more dough for Wiz, more girls and more room for him to rest on his perma-blazed laurels — but it doesn’t exactly compel him to push the envelope in style or charisma.
Wiz Kahlifa wants to be great. That’s no mystery. And at first glance, it seems that he has a decent chance to be able to hang with hip hop’s bigwig up-and-comers (Drake, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole). The arrogance, the hedonism, the hooks — they’re all there, and in abundance. But unfortunately for Wiz, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. There is no “ah-ha” moment, no “Holy-shit-this-dude’s-a-genius” realization, just some top-shelf cheap thrills courtesy of a skinny guy from Pittsburgh. Wiz Khalifa perfects the art of being pretty good, and when it comes to smoking ’dro, stealing chicks and partying in hotel rooms, Wiz is your man. Whether or not he can cross into something more significant or inventive is up to him. Or if the Steelers go to the Super Bowl in 2012.