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'Rolling Papers' Week, Day 3: A stumble and brief recovery

It’s Rolling Papers Week at Louder Now. Wiz Khalifa, hip-hop’s young pothead-in-charge, dropped his highly anticipated major-label debut Tuesday. Every day this week, I’m going to analyze the tracks: what works, what doesn’t and what it means for a rap star clearly interested in crossing over to mainstream success.

6. “Wake Up” (Produced by Stargate)
If “Roll Up” proved the Wiz-and-Stargate tandem wasn’t bulletproof, “Wake Up” shows they’re capable of an all-out dud. The trouble brews within the first 15 seconds, as Wiz struggles to sing in his higher register about a beyond-tired rap cliché (“I don’t wanna wake up / … And I hardly ever sleep but it’s like a dream”). Stargate’s beat is their take on subtle hip-hop — their trademark synths are only periodically deployed, the snare sounds like a hand clap — but it's an afterthought when paired with an extra-lethargic Wiz. I’ve heard this song at least 20 times, and it’s never connected, neither on an aesthetic level or musical level. Wiz songs usually have moments or nuances to hone in on, but “Wake Up” slowly burns without much light. Essentially, it lacks balls.

And then there’s Wiz’s rapping, which has never been his strong suit, but it’s egregious here. Example: “First class tags, or maybe I’m in first because of my first-class swag / Used to say that I was trippin’, so a n---- bought expensive-ass bags.” The “trippin’/bags” connection is a poor, boring excuse for wordplay. If you’re going to talk “first class tags” and “expensive-ass bags,” dress it up to make it interesting. Kanye West has made a career of stunt-lyrics, and he uses high-end fashion brands as wealth signifiers and lyrical enhancers. (“The fur is Hermes, s--- that you don’t floss / The Goyard so hard, I think I’m Hugo’s Boss” from “The Glory” is a prime example.) Kanye, Wiz is not. “Wake Up” is the moment Rolling Papers stumbles and never fully recovers, with the exception of the next song.

7. “The Race” (Produced by E. Dan and Big Jerm)
“The Race” is Rolling Papers’ crowning achievement, a blissful marriage between what makes Wiz a surprisingly sophisticated artist and his hometown production team knowing what works best for him. “The Race” is pure ride-out music, a term I use a lot but rarely describe. It’s difficult to verbalize, but here’s a shot: ride-out songs work best in the car, windows down, beautiful day, all alone. They have the power to alleviate stress and can make you appreciate the wonders of zoning out. (If I sound stoned, I swear I’m not.) They possess a majestic quality, but are never stuffy. They provide an escape. And that’s “The Race,” a five-and-a-half minute track that says little but expresses much.

E. Dan and Big Jerm, two guys from Pittsburgh’s ID Labs production team, deserve much of the credit. “The Race” is layered with slightly flanged sounds that mimic flutes and guitars, all played underwater. The drums — a constant stuttering, slow roll — keep a tempo that never allows the lush “Race” to sound sleepy. But it’s the bulletproof melody that makes Wiz the perfect rapper for the beat. Even Wiz’s like-minded peers (think Curren$y or Mac Miller) would fail to elevate this joint-ride soundtrack the way Wiz does. His hook is perfectly paced, sung in his natural range and ridiculously catchy. “It’s lonely at the top, ain’t no company so / Now I just stunt on my own, now I just stunt on my own,” he sings. There’s a hint of melancholy, but the song is too gorgeous to steer sad. Even better than the hook is Wiz’s decision to let the beat breathe, only filling space when it feels right. “The Race” is everything Wiz does best, and it bums me out he didn’t do more songs in this lane.

8. “Star of the Show (feat. Chevy Woods)” (Produced by E. Dan and Big Jerm)
Once again, Wiz falls victim to the trappings of generic concepts. In a nutshell: Wiz’s old haters want to stand next to him now that he’s famous. I’m sure this actually happens on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make it interesting. “Star of the Show” fails to pop in ways Wiz songs should: the droning chorus sounds bitter rather than celebratory, and E. Dan and Big Jerm’s beat is hollow and dank (not the good kind). And in the instance where Wiz is actually rapping tightly written verses (“I remember them same hoes that never noticed us / Get you to buy a drink then it’s over, cuz / We back around the time that she sobered up / S--- ain’t been the same since the limousine showed up”), he concedes 16 bars to his hypeman, Chevy Woods (formerly Kev Tha Hustla). When Chevy raps, “You won’t stall me out / uh, bad transmission,” it makes me yearn for Wiz’s limited abilities.  

On Thursday: "No Sleep," "Get Your S---" and "Top Floor"

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