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Wiz Khalifa's 'Rolling Papers' Week, Day 1: 'When I'm Gone' and 'On My Level'

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. Shouts to Brandon Soderberg and Tom Breihan for the inspiration; their "Weeks" are great examples of close-reading rap. First up: “When I’m Gone” and “On My Level.”

THE SKINNY: There’s some necessary context to add when discussing Rolling Papers. For years, Wiz Khalifa, 23, steadily built his Taylor Gang brand without a major label (a well-received project was titled Deal or No Deal). He built his buzz through relentless touring (a tired term often used loosely but fitting in Wiz’s case) and realizing his audience: college and high school kids spending their parents’ money on weed and streetwear clothing. His buzz peaked after last April’s accomplished mixtape Kush and Orange Juice, and a deal with Atlantic Records was made.

Atlantic’s relationship with hip-hop has lately been successful and strained. B.o.B disappointed fans that fell in love with his inventive rapping when he released his Atlantic debut, B.o.B Presents the Adventures of Bobby Ray. Old fans wondered what happened to the Andre 3000-esque prodigy. Many more new fans loved his pop-hop collaborations with Bruno Mars, Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Atlantic wants its rappers on the radio, and B.o.B isn’t the only example. Flo Rida’s European-inspired club singles sound more at home on pop stations than rap ones. Lupe Fiasco’s fans picketed Atlantic’s headquarters to demand the release of Lasers, a messy No. 1 album Fiasco can’t completely love because of its pop concessions.

“Pop,” “radio,” “hooks” – words associated with Atlantic’s recent rap offerings, but also words Khalifa embraces. Tor Erik Hermansen, one-half of Stargate (“Black & Yellow” producers) told Complex: “And [Wiz] was honest with us. He said, ‘I need that radio s--- that you guys do.’” Two of Wiz’s greatest strengths are his pop sensibility and his deceptively melodic singing voice, so Rolling Papers as a radio-friendly album isn’t surprising — it’s expected.

1. “When I’m Gone” (Produced by E. Dan & Big Jerm)
The album’s first track opens with a softly played, too-long piano part that screams, “Take me seriously! This piano is elegant!” It’s Wiz’s longtime Pittsburgh producers doing their best Alex Da Kid (B.o.B’s “Airplanes,” Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home”) impression. It’s an ominous sign for Rolling Papers: Wiz knows this could be his best shot at superstardom, and he won't be taking too many chances. Longtime-fans’ ambivalence kicks in here, but a sight of relief comes from “When I’m Gone’s” lyrics. Wiz’s opening lines are a declaration: “And they say all I rap about is bitches and champagne / You would, too, if every night you seen the same thing.” A common complaint on Wiz is his lack of subjects, which are almost exclusively premium weed, smoking weed, rolling weed, smoking weed with your girl, partying and shopping at Louis Vuitton. I hate this argument, as if rappers are better for meeting a quota of topics. (Bonus points if they’re Important.) If Gucci Mane raps best about his jewelry than that’s what I want to hear, and it’s the same with Wiz. Wiz’s best songs produce visceral reactions, like the audio equivalent to happily indulging in vices, and worrying about the hangover tomorrow, if at all. So “When I’m Gone’s” first statement is encouraging — Wiz’s modern-day hippie (free love, party hard, respect all) mindset in tact, but with a few more whistles.

“When I’m Gone’s” rapping is passively enjoyable in the sense that lines don’t stick out, but a laidback, triumphant stoner vibe is established. Like so many Wiz songs, the verses are merely vehicles to the hook, and “Gone’s” chorus is classic Wiz: boastful, immediately catchy, rough around the edges but charming. The concept is as generic as rap gets (spend all of this money now because when you’re dead, you can’t, duh, duh, duh), but it’s an effective, only slightly cheesy intro. At this point, the album could go in a lot of directions – pop, upbeat, for the ladies — so it’s wonderful to hear the subwoofer-destroying bass of “On My Level” next.

2. “On My Level” (feat. Too $hort) (Produced by Jim Jonsin)
At my house, this street single has been in constant rotation since it leaked last month. It’s a deliciously seedy party song that spirals out of Wiz’s mouth in a drunken/high mess. “High as f---, sloppy drunk when I’m passing through / rolling doobies up, your ho who we pass them to” sums up Wiz in two bars. What works best is the song’s sinister, sincere dedication to getting trashed, which is immature but inviting to the “bad” side in all of us. He caps off the first verse: “Roll another one, drink, act a fool / It’s what I have to do,” and I always hear the emphasis on “have.” Wiz’s lifestyle of headies weed and champagne is an attractive commitment to his fanbase — watch one episode of “Campus PD” for the .99 cent version — and he takes it seriously.

The song’s hook demonstrates the lethal combination of Wiz and Jonsin, two artists unafraid of sneaking dirty imagery and sounds into their breezy pop songs. (Jonsin produced T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” a song that was laughably pop until its dirty South-inspired, trunk-rattling outro.) "Level's" woozy chorus allows Wiz to drunkenly beat his chest (you will not rage on his level), but it’s smarter than that. The hook ends with the rapper taking “one shot to the brain” before he orders three more. Too $hort, the Oakland legend, shows up after Wiz’s two verses like the older buddy who gave Wiz his first joint. But $hort mentions a wide array of drugs, and you can tell the night is only going to get sloppier. The song’s fantastic bridge — including lighter flicks as a snare drum — is the moment Wiz squints at the mirror, failing to sober up. “Man, I’m high as f--- / Man, I swear I’m on my level / Man, I’m sloppy drunk / Man, I swear I’m on my level.” The night will abruptly end by a vomit-decorated toilet, and it will be remembered as a good night.

On Tuesday: “Black and Yellow,” “Roll Up” and “Hopes and Dreams” 

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