Baltimore Sun

'Rolling Papers' Week, Day 2: Meet Wiz Khalifa's new muse, radio

It's Rolling Papers Week at Louder Now. Wiz Khalifa, hip-hop's young pothead-in-charge, drops 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.

3. “Black and Yellow” (Produced by Stargate)
What else is there to say about “Black and Yellow”? It’s the best pure rap single in years, and it rose to No. 1 in a beautiful way. It was an ode to his city without sounding like a showtune (Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”). It didn’t need a slick Bruno Mars hook (B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You”). And it didn’t have the benefit of riding a Young Money wave of nearly guaranteed success (Drake’s “Over,” Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love”). Instead, Wiz went with his radio-hungry gut, collaborating with Norwegian producers Stargate, a duo more accustomed to working with pop divas than weed-head rappers from a blue-collar city. It also helps that Stargate brought Wiz a teed-up grand slam.

The song’s beat is and has always been the star: the heavy chords of the synths, the twinkling notes on top that Wiz (and every other rapper) perfectly mimics, the soft thump of the 808 drums. A lesser rapper could have made it a hit, but Wiz deserves recognition for never reaching. (This will continue to come up this week: Wiz Goes Pop! only works when it’s within his chilled-out lane.) He brilliantly toes the line of Pittsburgh pride and general bragging that could work in Anywhere, U.S.A. The topics are the same (weed, cars, women) but Wiz raps with such style that it sounds brand new. He makes starting a car with a button sound as cool as having a driver for a Maybach. And the best part about “Black and Yellow” is that still sounds as crisp as it did six months ago.

4. “Roll Up” (Produced by Stargate)
Ah, the “Black and Yellow” follow-up many believed would be a smash that failed to catch a spark. Doubling-down on “Roll Up” makes sense like picking a No. 1 team to win March Madness: the players are proven so why wouldn’t the momentum continue? (Can you tell I'm still bitter about Duke?) But “Roll Up” isn’t nearly as strong as “Black and Yellow” for many reasons. It’s a for-the-women track that makes Wiz the try-hard lothario rather than the blissful stoner (guess which hat looks better). The title “Roll Up” isn’t as clever as Wiz thinks it is (oh, it’s not about weed? Wow!). Weak drums. And most noticeably, repeating, “I roll up, I roll up” isn’t an effective-enough hook to repeat the ubiquitous success of “Black and Yellow.” It’s a boring track that tries to win you over with each spin — “this is OK for loverboy-rap, I guess” “I think I don’t mind the bridge?” — but there’s just too many hurdles. (Radio, Wiz’s non-smokeable muse, agrees — “Roll Up’s” peak position on Billboard’s Hot 100 is No. 45.).

When “Roll Up” was announced as Rolling Papers’ second single, it became clear just how pop Wiz was willing to stretch. Like I wrote yesterday, that isn’t an automatic death knell as long as Wiz maintains the persona he crafted on his mixtapes — the modern-day hippie that attracts the girl naturally, without donning a cape to save her from her bad boyfriend. Let’s just say “Roll Up” wouldn’t have worked on Kush and Orange Juice.        

5. “Hopes and Dreams” (Produced by Brandon Carrier)
With its barely there beat — seriously, the choppy guitars and 808 drums dispel into the ether, with only Casio snares and hi-hats to keep it from completely vanishing — “Hopes and Dreams” is a natural fit for Wiz. His knack for making listeners feel high with him shines through, like we’re passing a bong as vinyl spins. It’s hard to concentrate on Wiz’s raps because the vibe he’s created with Carrier is that spacey, that hazy. This isn’t new territory for Wiz: old-favorite “Flickin’ Ashes” rides a dusty soul sample but can’t leave the couch; the otherworldly “Up” makes lines such as “walking on the ceiling” seem deliriously possible.

Cult-favorite rapper Lil B birthed the Based movement, a hard-to-pinpoint-but-you-know-it-when-you-hear-it sound that’s quintessentially him and not for everyone. Wiz achieves something similar on tracks like this, allowing diehard fans an opportunity to identify what separates Wiz from other of-the-moment rappers. He creates pitch-perfect stoner rap for stoners (being perpetually stoned most likely helps the creative process), and not in the corny Afroman-novelty way. The key difference is craftsmanship: there’s a pre-chorus that floats underwater and leads into a higher-register hook, and then it’s gone before you realize it. “Hopes and Dreams” isn’t about rapping or lyrics (“Buying O’s like it’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ / feeling flawless, living lawless” is a notably terrible way to end a verse). But rather it fits snugly into Wiz’s wheelhouse of pothead jams. After the saccharine combination of “Black and Yellow” and “Roll Up,” it’s a welcome reminder Wiz is still looking out for the pre-“Black and Yellow” crowd.

On Wednesday: "Wake Up," "The Race" and "Star of the Show (feat. Chevy Woods)"