By Chaz Kangas
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With his spindly six-foot-four frame and self-estimated $10,000-a-month weed habit, Wiz Khalifa invites easy comparisons to Snoop Dogg. The upstart Pittsburgh rapper, who is reportedly starring alongside Snoop in a Cheech & Chong–style buddy flick called High School, also takes after his Doggfather when it comes to cultivating a diverse following. His "Black & Yellow" topped the Billboard Hot 100 in February thanks in part to football fans and pop radio. (The Steelers unofficially adopted the song, which references the colors worn by Pittsburgh's professional sports franchises, during their run-up to the Super Bowl). Long before Wiz recorded his now signature anthem with Norwegian super-producers Stargate, though, the weed anthems and chill-out vibes on mixtapes like Kush and Orange Juice had already elevated him to cult status on college campuses.
More than any other rapper at the moment, Wiz has reinvigorated an audience that hip-hop has, in the past decade, taken somewhat for granted: white males between 18 and 24. It's this demo, oft-quoted market research told us, that accounted for the greatest percentage of sales during hip-hop's commercial peak in the late 1990s. But where Doggy Style and Chronic 2001 were standard dorm-room issue during my college years a decade ago, today's frat party is more likely to be soundtracked by indie rock than rap.
Wiz, who this month became the first rapper to take top honors at the seven-year-old mtvU Woodie Awards, focused much of his energy on colleges. His tours often bypass major media markets like Detroit and San Francisco in favor of out-of-the-way campuses like Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and, cough, Humboldt State. While he is hardly unique in treading this path—frat rap is enjoying something of a boom right now—no other rapper has translated this success into the mainstream profile that Wiz has.
Thanks to the runaway success of "Black & Yellow," the Warner Bros. castoff-turned-mixtape kingpin has been given something of a clean slate. Rolling Papers, his first full-length release since signing with Atlantic Records last year, is the 23-year-old's third album, though even fans might be forgiven for thinking it's his first. (He was just 17, and years away from finding his distinctive, smart-alecky delivery, at the time of 2006's Show and Prove; 2009's Deal or No Deal was also released quietly.)
Wiz's preference is for airy beats that balance rumbling low-end drop with high-pitched synth flourishes—the better for him to float his hazy, weed-clouded observations over. The most effective of these—melodramatic album opener "When I'm Gone," the orchestral "The Race"—come from Pittsburgh producers E. Dan and Big Jerm, whose I.D. Labs studio has long been Wiz's homebase.
Wiz has grown into a more skillful hookmeister than rapper, so it's practical for him to attempt to spread his wings over beats even more pop than "Black & Yellow." If only these tracks, which prove to be the album's biggest missteps, were sharper: "Fly Solo," a plucky, acoustic-guitar-driven ditty, sounds like a half-baked ode to frat-house favorite Sublime. The bubble-gum beat on "No Sleep" would be far better suited for one of Katy/Ke$ha/Britney producer Benny Blanco's other clients.
The idea of ascension, both literally and figuratively, is the album's prevailing motif, and it's the tracks that focus most intensely on this theme that are the strongest. On "Star of the Show," Wiz scolds naysayers and congratulates his own hard work in the tradition of Biggie's "Juicy." "Went from being hated on/To n****s tryna go the same road I made it on," he rhymes on "Star of the Show." "Ain't no love lost/But wasn't no love shown/So now when n***** call/I just don't pick up the phone."
For all the talk of Wiz's being "the new Snoop," Rolling Papers shares almost nothing aesthetically with Doggy Style—or any of Mr. Snoop's 10 other LPs, including his new Doggumentary, also out this week. Wiz would do well to take a few lessons from his hero's career path going forward, though. While most rappers continue to strive for the unsustainable, Jay-Z-inspired model of unflappable street credibility and consistent chart success, Snoop lives the comfortable life of a classic rock-type legacy artist. The "most dangerous man in 1993," as Seth MacFarlane facetiously described Snoop on Comedy Central's recent roast of Donald Trump, learned how to laugh at himself, and he's better for it. Over the past decade, he has turned into a guy who plays himself on One Life to Live, shills for Air New Zealand, and roasts Donald Trump on Comedy Central. Like clockwork, he still drops a new album every two years. Whether they are successful or not is almost irrelevant.