The Week In Pop: In Praise Of Wiz Khalifa’s Polarizing Pop Career
Some rappers tell jokes, others are jokes. (Big Sean, that lovable cornball, is an amalgam of the two archetypes.) Ever since Wiz Khalifa floated on a cloud of kush smoke from the mixtape underground into top 40 rotation, Pittsburgh’s most famous MC has been in the latter category — a laughingstock among self-proclaimed real hip-hop fans, a nuisance among those who just want to enjoy Miguel’s “Adorn” undisturbed, an object of moralist scorn for flipping his drug arrests into promo ops. Not long after he compared himself to Jimi Hendrix, someone else compared him to Jar Jar Binks.
It wasn’t always this way. Wiz began as a genuine grassroots success story, someone for whom organic buzz was not only a marijuana reference. His mixtapes used to crash Datpiff entirely on the strength of a loyal underground following mesmerized by his dazed cackling and free-associative flow. When he and Curren$y released tapes together, it made perfect sense: Both guys were building vast networks of followers by releasing evocative weed-rap odysseys in bulk. He seemed primed for long success as a cult figure until his Pittsburgh sports anthem “Black And Yellow” came along and made him a pop star in 2010. Ever since “Black And Yellow” hit #1, Khalifa has continued to kick out straight hip-hop tracks aimed at his old underground audience, but pop singles have been his calling card and meal ticket.
Jordan Sargent’s recent Khalifa profile drew a smart parallel to Nicki Minaj’s one-for-the-radio, one-for-the-heads strategy — and indeed, Minaj shows up on Khalifa’s latest pop track, “True Colors.” But unlike Minaj, Wiz hasn’t maintained credibility among rap fans at large. The Fader would never call him Earth’s best rapper, nor should they; his approach has always been more about setting a mood than pulling off lyrical flights of fancy.
that means his street singles don’t catch fire online like Nicki’s do, so people outside his core fan base know him mainly for his top 40 presence. The career trajectory has mirrored that of mixtape star turned “Airplanes” hit-maker B.o.B. — that is, Wiz has become a filthy rich punchline.
That’s understandable to a point. Khalifa hasn’t been afraid to go obnoxiously saccharine on songs like “True Colors,” the Snoop Dogg/Bruno Mars collab “Young, Wild & Free,” and — most eyebrow-raisingly — Maroon 5’s “Payphone.” His persona is so silly that when he tries to go serious, as on the Weeknd duet “Remember You,” it feels like he showed up in the wrong song. He often contributes extraneous guest verses to singles odd (the Lily Allen/T-Pain duet “5 O’Clock”), egregious (Mike Will Made It’s Miley showcase “23”) or inexcusable (the Ludacris-led “Barbie Girl” flip “Party Girls”). He seems to have no shame, but it’s a lowest-common-denominator sort of shamelessness. He lacks the vision and quality control of similarly shameless critical favorites Drake and Kanye West, so his formidable influence on the modern rap has been acknowledged rarely and celebrated even less.
His new Blacc Hollywood, streaming at MTV this week, continues that throwing-shit-at-the-wall approach, with predictably mixed results. There are grimy rap tracks, sing-songy pop tracks, club songs, sex songs, and of course drug songs of many kinds. The guests are predictable yet appropriate, ranging from Minaj to Taylor Gang underlings Ty Dolla $ign and Chevy Woods to fellow trap hedonists Juicy J and Project Pat to old mixtape peer Curren$y. The block party jam “We Dem Boyz,” at once the album’s best and most insufferable song, is intended to appeal to what Wiz calls a “hood” audience by mimicking Chicago’s violent drill music, but it’s way catchier than most drill songs, and he’s not the type to breath threats. Khalifa’s pop tendencies show through in his not-so-dangerous imagery and the meme-like way he delivers every line. It’s an intriguing look for Khalifa in that it bridges his two extremes, but it’s also typical Khalifa in that it would be unimaginably terrible if it wasn’t also irresistible.
From the street singles to the radio hits, pretty much all Khalifa’s music is like that, balancing perilously between failure and triumph. The cuts he feeds to his old constituency are just as inconsistent as the ones that aim for the top 40, just for different reasons: Whereas his pop moves are sometimes so craven they can’t be ignored, his mixtape mumbles are often so phoned-in that even he’d probably be hard-pressed to remember them. Despite his reputation as a clown, Khalifa’s catalog belies the notion that going pop has to be a bad thing; there is good and bad on both sides of his discography. In fact, I’d argue that a large percentage of his best work is in the pop milieu. “Black And Yellow,” for instance, is infectious enough to win over rabid Steelers haters like Tom Breihan and myself. The synth-smeared “Roll Up” is expertly executed bubblegum drug music. “Work Hard, Play Hard” is one of the finest jock jams to emerge this decade, matching a pulsating undertow with a relentless brain-drain hook. For what it’s worth, I can even appreciate the laminated “Young, Wild & Free” as a marvel of craftsmanship if nothing else.
Is Wiz Khalifa one of the greats? By no means. His batting average is way too low, his number of bullshit guest verses way too high. I mean, shit, he’s on that godawful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles song, and he hasn’t accumulated nearly enough goodwill to skate through something like that with his dignity intact. (Juicy J? Probably, but I mean, have you heard that song?) If Wiz is aiming to be a great rapper or a titanic artistic presence, he’s certainly failing. But I don’t turn to the Wiz Khalifa catalog for great rapping or grand artistic statements; I cue up Wiz when I’m looking for a good time. For every Wiz track worth laughing at, there’s another worth laughing with. He makes dunderheaded party tracks and zonked-out mood music, and the world needs that too.
I was hoping I could report a #1 debut for Spoon’s tremendous They Want My Soul, but alas, it was not to be. That one enters the albums chart at #4 with 39,000, significantly behind big debuts by Godsmack’s 1000HP (#3, 58,000) and the Now 51 compilation (#2, 94,000). Still, none of last week’s new releases could best the surging Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1, which jumped up to #1 with 109,000 sold this week after entering the previous week at #3. So old hits beat out new hits this week. Call it the Forrest Gump effect, I guess: Attach the right retro hits playlist to the right blockbuster movie and watch your soundtrack soar.
Back to Spoon, though: As Billboard points out, their last album, 2010’s Transference, also debuted at #4. Two former chart-toppers are up next: 5 Seconds Of Summer’s self-titled debut (#5, 36,000) and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Hypnotic Eye (#6, 34,000). Then it’s three more familiar titles: Eric Clapton & Friends’ The Breeze: An Appreciation Of JJ Cale (#7, 29,000), the Frozen soundtrack (#8, 28,000), and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour (#9, 24,000). Closing out the top 10 are a new UK pop band called the Vamps. Their EP Somebody To You moved 20,000 units in its first week, good for a start at #10.
MAGIC!’s “Rude” rules the singles chart for a fifth straight week because America loves white reggae. America also loves Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea, so “Stay With Me” and “Fancy” are still at #2 and #3 respectively. If that bores you, consider this: Meghan Trainor’s delightful big-body-means-big-booty anthem “All About That Bass” is up to #4 thanks in part to so many people streaming its awesome video (check it in last week’s column). (She calls herself “the M-Train,” which is hilarious.) Even better news: Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” made it up to #10. She finally scored a top-10 single as a solo artist! Here’s to many more. The rest of the top 10 is fairly predictable — “Am I Wrong” at #5, “Problem” at #6, “Maps” at #7, “Chandelier” at #8 — except I wouldn’t have expected the Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj hit “Bang Bang” to drop to #9 after debuting at #6 last week. Speaking of Minaj, Billboard points out that her “Anaconda” debuts at #19 mostly on the strength of sales.
A BUNCH OF SONGS WE ALREADY POSTED NOW HAVE BIG-BUDGET VIDEOS BASED ON OLD MOVIES
Ariana Grande – “Break Free” (Feat. Zedd)
Barbarella! Aliens blasted in the face!
Iggy Azalea – “Black Widow” (Feat. Rita Ora)
Kill Bill! T.I.!
David Guetta – “Lovers On The Sun” (Feat. Sam Martin)
Name your Spaghetti Western of choice! Ray Liotta!
Bastille – “Bad News”
I definitely prefer Bastille’s electronic side as demonstrated on this track from their upcoming EP over the rubbery-cafeteria-food rock of their breakout hit “Pompeii.” Let’s call it good news, then.
Jon Bellion – “Simple And Sweet”
This song, by the songwriter behind Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster,” accumulated 24,000 plays in its first day after premiering at Billboard. Crazy to see how much hipster synthpop has crept into mainstream synthpop, but I guess that’s always how it goes. I feel like this is a parody of a Purity Ring video or something. And look at that T-shirt.
Hilary Duff – “All About You”
It’s no masterpiece, but this serviceable blast of late-summer sunshine is way, way better than “Chasing The Sun,” Duff’s sub-Sheryl Crow comeback single. If “All About You” actually catches on at radio, I wouldn’t mind in the slightest.
Metro Station – “Love & War”
What a strange monstrosity this is. Metro Station is the duo of Trace Cyrus (Miley’s half-brother) and Mason Musso, broken up in 2010 with top-10 hit “Shake It” to their name and reunited in 2014 bearing “Love & War.” Whereas they used to be part of the pop-punk boy band continuum, this one is pretty much a straight pop song.
Annabel Jones – “Magnetic”
Good find by Idolator here: A minimalist synthpop track that does a whole lot with nothing but an array of keyboards and a voice that indeed exerts magnetic power, brought to you by the daughter of late Monkees star Davy Jones.
QUE – “Standout” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
At this point I’ll listen to anything Ty Dolla $ign is featured on, and I certainly don’t regret that policy here.
Bebe Rexha – “I Can’t Stop Drinking About You”
This goes from normal and shrug-worthy to insanely ridiculous real quick.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Taylor Swift awkwardly confirmed to Jimmy Fallon that she’ll perform at the VMAs, but she wouldn’t say what’s happening in her livestream this Monday (though we have a good guess). [YouTube]
- Speaking of Swift, rumors suggest her new single will be called “Shake It Off.” [Idolator]
- Nicki Minaj is playing the VMAs too. [The Hollywood Reporter]
- Predictably, One Direction’s next music will be “a little bit more edgy.” [Idolator]
- The only thing that will stop a baby from crying? 2 Chainz! [MTV]
- One of Ariana Grande’s upcoming singles is about an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with another dude. [Attitude]
- Celine Dion put her Vegas residency on hold to be by her ailing husband’s side. [Facebook]