Many fans of this wonderful genre of ours feel that hip hop has become extremely polarised over the last two years. Not so much in terms of how it is represented – for in 2011, you can really do as you please, no matter what the subject matter or back story – but in terms of quality level. Generally, the perception of major label releases seems to be that they are either wonderful or woeful. For the record companies, it is a no-win situation. Take Atlantic Records: they were “behind” both “LASERS” by Lupe Fiasco, and “Sir Lucious Left Foot” by Big Boi. The former was recently derided as being far below Lupe’s usual level of excellence, and the blame was squarely laid at the label’s door. Big Boi’s album is universally anointed as one of the best rap albums in recent memory – yet Atlantic got no credit, and a whole heap of shit for not facilitating any Andre 3000 appearances.
Whether the quality level really has become so extreme is clearly up for debate, but the influence of labels – particularly in economic times such as these – is almost undeniable, especially as far as “newer” artists are concerned. Throwing their weight around, they will point to their countless previous successes, and the heavy artillery they are able to employ (getting the hottest producers, guests and promotion for the artist). What they have almost given up doing, however, is letting an artist develop, improve and dominate through music. Bizarrely enough, artists such as Lil Wayne have become absolute rarities. He was derided, but consistently improved year on year, and through albums and, in particular, mixtapes, improved beyond measure.
So far, so obvious. But when it comes to Wiz Khalifa – clearly a direct descendant of the “Lil Wayne School of Rapping” – there are a fair few ticks in both the “for” and “against” columns. The positives, for example, include his solid taste in music, which make for an easy and listenable musical journey on “Rolling Papers.” As a background long play, it’s remarkably consistent throughout, and there are very few songs that jump out for good/bad reasons – simply down to the strong form displayed from start to finish. Then you are able to include the various singles: calling “Black & Yellow” a mere anthem is to do it a great disservice, as it has dominated the airwaves (rightly so, too) for months, and is now going genuinely global. Street jams like “On My Level” have appeal as slow-rolling trunk-shakers; “Roll Up” is the prerequisite track for the ladeez, that certain demographics will probably respond to; “No Sleep” (the next single) wouldn’t go amiss on a Rihanna album (think “Cheers”); and “Get Your Shit” is like a male version of “Irreplaceable.”
Those are all positives that, if you possess a keen eye, you may have noticed have virtually nothing to do with Wiz Khalifa himself. You see, he is reminiscent of Lil Wayne – but the Weezy from around a whole decade ago. Khalifa’s rapping ability is extremely limited, as is his range. Sure, he’s not particularly lyrical – that’s no crime – but the problem lies in his sheer laziness, the way in which he makes little attempt on song after song to stand up to the beat or chorus, and equal/top it. He genuinely just seems happy to be there, like he struck the rap lottery and, unfortunately, it really shows on “Rolling Papers.” You could listen to this album twenty times and still pay almost no attention to what the alleged star of the show is saying, aside from certain choruses. It would certainly confuse the uninitiated listener who might well wonder what on earth the hype was all about. The lyrics are generally poor, the subject matter has occasionally interesting tangents, but really it’s all textbook/standard stuff.
Many of the recent Atlantic LPs remind me of Tinie Tempah’s “Disc-Overy” â€“ which I reviewed on the site a few months ago. The UK rapper is now making a splash in the US, and his album gets the big official release there in just over a month. Bizarrely enough, in a reverse-engineering quirk of fate, American labels are copying the biggest British success story, but failing to get the message. There is a synchronicity between Tempah’s undeniable spirit/gusto, and the excellent music the label lays on for him: they are all working as one, towards a common goal. And that is what Atlantic, in particular, just keep on failing to understand. They take a street artist, and turn him pop. They take a lyrical genius, and dumb him down. They take a certified legend, and tell him they want more of a “Lollipop” feel. Whilst Tinie’s album is by no means perfect, you still want to get on board, as you feel he is genuinely “going places.” Which leads us back to the star of the show.
One of the biggest problems is the feeling that this is as good as it gets for Wiz Khalifa. You can’t really imagine him ever topping “Black & Yellow” with its multiple melodies burrowing deep into your brain. Very little comes close to matching the bizarre brilliance of that Stargate-produced joint, and as a rapper, again, you feel that Wiz is an affable guy, the underdog you want to root for, but an MC that says practically nothing of any worth. To be honest, I can’t even imagine this selling all too well, as there isn’t even that much ingenious quality to cherry-pick from. Whilst it is, undoubtedly, a solid musical listen, that is nowhere near enough, as “Rolling Papers” is just the safest, most formulaic rap album that you could possibly imagine. This offering will come and go, barely disrupting a blade of grass – and, for once, the blame can probably be placed at the feet of Wiz Khalifa himself. Yes, you can criticize Atlantic, but when Curren$y pops up on the penultimate track, it immediately highlights the gulf in class between the two rappers, and Khalifa needs to work much harder next time round. Most people will want Wiz to succeed, as he does successfully come across as likeable personality, and even Rick Ross has displayed a genuine hunger to improve, so anything is possible. But this album is, put simply, one that won’t make much of an impression, good or bad. And that’s the worst kind.