Dial the first five numbers in your phone, and chances are, the recipient of at least one of those calls will be greeted by the infectious hook to “Black and Yellow,” the breakout hit from Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa. All driving drums, propulsive keys and swagger to spare, “Black and Yellow” was an out of the box anthem, dominating cars, clubs and yes, cellphones, and virtually assuring Khalifa a spot on VH1’s eventual “I Love 2010” special. But, with the release of Rolling Papers, Khalifa is out to prove that he is no ringtone rapper, one hit wonder, or flash in the novelty pan.
While the path of least resistance, (and probably most revenue) would have been to chalk his first major full length release full of club bangers and trunk rattlers, Khalifa takes a mellower, more cerebral approach to Rolling Papers. The pensive opener, “When I’m Gone” is a bittersweet meditation on fame and fortune that feels like a cross between Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” and Drake’s “Fireworks.” “The Race” is an atmospheric account of the daily grind of an up and coming rap star, which resonates thanks to eerie background vocals and new-agey keys that create a subtle, but palpable tension. “Wake Up” offers a similar soundscape, but percussive handclaps and an energetic hook give it a distinctly more celebratory tone.
While Khalifa is effective, if not particularly profound in his reflections on the struggles of sudden celebrity, his desire for lyrical substance may be greater than his ability to deliver, at least at this stage in his career. Two thirds of Rolling Papers deals with the double edged sword of fame, but without the structural discipline or thematic variation required for a true concept album. Back end fillers like “Top Floor” and “Fly Solo” simply feel like lesser re-treads of earlier standouts. Though his refusal to return to the “Black and Yellow” well, is admirable in theory, a couple more party starters would have infused the album with the much needed release to which all the sonic tension appears to be building. The current single “Roll Up,” while radio ready, lacks the energy and personality necessary to stand out from the obligatory “girl song” on every other major label rap release.
In the end, the high points here are more than compelling enough to warrant repeated spins, and the weak spots are simply forgettable, not unlistenable. Perhaps more importantly, Wiz Khalifa appears to be positioning himself as an artist who can deliver substance to the ringtone audience, and if Rolling Papers is the first step on that journey, it is certainly walking on the right path.