Status Ain't Hood

Wiz Khalifa Can Still Rap When He Feels Like It

“Releasing a song on a cookie’s crazy.” That’s how Wiz Khalifa describes releasing a song on a cookie. If you watched this past Sunday’s Grammys and didn’t stare at your phone all through the commercials, then you saw Wiz and his miles-wide smile in an Oreo commercial, mugging with his kid and projecting a more cuddly image than any other face-tatted rapper has ever managed. “They say that we’re too grown for fun,” Wiz half-raps on the accompanying jingle. He’s wrong. Nobody has ever accused Wiz Khalifa of being too old for fun — or, indeed, of really being capable of doing anything other than having fun.

That ad, and the accompanying song, is a sad little summation of the state of Wiz Khalifa in 2019. His rise was both fast and furious, but he’s slowly been slipping down the festival posters for years now. At the beginning of the decade, there was a real excitement around Wiz, a Pittsburgh major-label refugee who became an underground stoner-rap hero, freestyling airily over festival-synthpop and getting massive teenage crowds hyped-up in ways that were just baffling to old heads like me. Wiz’s 2010 mixtape Kush & Orange Juice crashed DatPiff for hours on the day it came out. That fall, I saw him absolutely levitate a sold-out Metro in Chicago, his expansively mellow music transforming into urgent party-fuel when experienced communally. A few months later, he rode that enthusiasm — and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Cinderella playoff run — to #1 with the hometown-pride anthem “Black & Yellow.” A few years later, he was back in that spot with “See You Again,” the one where he and Charlie Puth put one in the air for fellow mellow youth-culture god Paul Walker.

But that was then. Wiz hasn’t appeared on a top-20 single since “Sucker For Pain,” the 2016 clusterfuck from the Suicide Squad soundtrack. And that hasn’t been for a lack of hit-chasing. Wiz was never exactly a commanding rapper. Instead, he’s coasted on vibe and charisma. But he’s taken the wrong lessons from the career of his Mac & Devin Go To High School co-star Snoop Dogg. Like Snoop, he’s been content to drift off into some kind of perma-stoned cartoon-character purgatory. On verses, he has sounded like he’s killing time before the hook hits. On hooks, he has sounded like he’s killing time before the next verse arrives. He’s been a vaporous nonentity, and his Scooby-Doo cackle has left a deeper impression than any of his raps.

So bless Wiz for figuring out, belatedly, that it doesn’t have to be this way. There wasn’t any one moment in which Wiz’s online fanbase clicked into place, but you could mark it, if you wanted, with the release of 2009’s How Fly, the collaborative mixtape that Wiz and Curren$y recorded. Wiz and Curren$y have had vastly different careers, but both of them were at intersecting points a decade ago. Both were underestimated also-rans, both recovering from major-label deals that went nowhere, both finding their voices. At the time, Wiz was mostly known for “Say Yeah,” the 2008 single where he rapped over a sample of Alice Deejay’s 1998 cheese-house nugget “Better Off Alone.” Curren$y was mostly known for sleepily inessential verses on unsleepy and essential Lil Wayne mixtapes. Together, somehow, they made magic.

How Fly was a relentlessly pleasant, endlessly listenable ride-out. Wiz and Curren$y had instant chemistry, with Curren$y’s half-slurred drawl counterbalancing Wiz’s high-pitched singsong. And both of them sounded like they had all the time in the world to sit there and talk shit about weed and cars and video games. Their stalling careers had left them a whole lot of free time. And in the deep-recession gulch of 2009, a whole lot of us could relate. Together, they were a great hang.

In the years after How Fly, Wiz and Curren$y would sometimes show up on each other’s records, but they didn’t seem to be in any hurry to make the sequel. Wiz became a star, while Curren$y became the sort of omnipresent underground workhorse who can easily be overlooked. (Curren$y came back hard last year with Fetti, a collaboration with Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist, but I confess that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the guy in the years before that.) Now, all of a sudden, they’re back together.

2009, Wiz and Curren$y’s new collaborative album, could be considered a canny career move. Curren$y needs to remind the world that he exists, while Wiz needs to recapture some of that grassroots goodwill that put him in a position to show up in Oreo commercials in the first place. But the great thing about 2009 is that it doesn’t sound like a contrived transitional career move. It sounds like two old friends getting back together, falling into their old roles and rhythms like no time has gone by.

Once again, the two are tripping effortlessly over lush, warm beats. Once again, they’re only barely bothering with hooks. Once again, they’re complementing each other, their weaknesses somehow cancelling each other out. The new 2009 is a low-stakes affair, but it’s low-stakes in the good way. It’s comfortable. It’s an old sweater that still fits.

Curren$y is the better of the two rappers. He always has been. There’s a specificity in the shit he talks. He focuses on concrete moments of his rich-stoner life. He freaks himself out watching Scarface on shrooms. He cracks his iPhone screen because he forgot it was in his lap when he gets out of his car. He buys courtside seats to an NBA game, hoping to get his outfit on TV, but he doesn’t watch the game; he just plays Nintendo Switch instead. And he’s in love with words in ways that Wiz could never be: “I put the cheat code in/ I got the money and the infinite lives/ This Vice City, bitch.” He’s even better at self-mythologizing: “We changed how you smoke, changed how you dress/ Your whole life was blessed by the presence of the stoned legends.”

But Wiz is in rare form, too. For the first time in a while, he sounds fully engaged in the act of rapping. He’s not coasting on charisma, and that makes his charisma shine all the brighter. He has fun with words, with the way they sound: “We never die-ers, gang lifers, rap game survivors.” He remains persistently amazed that his favorite substance is legal, at least in some states: “I remember taking trips with weed in the trunk/ Now police don’t even trip when we rolling up.” There’s a daffy joy to his delivery, and to his good-natured money-talk: “My hotel suite describe the definition of chic/ Try not to ash on the sheets.”

2009 is not Wiz’s masterpiece. He’ll never make a masterpiece. (It’s not Curren$y’s masterpiece, either. That’s probably the first Pilot Talk.) But it hits like a breath of fresh smoke — the kind of sunbaked, mellowed-out ride that nobody makes anymore. If Wiz can tap back into his fundamental appeal every once in a while, he can make all the Oreo commercials he wants. 2009 proves that he is not, in fact, too grown for fun.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Gunna – “Speed It Up”
Gunna barely says 10 words in that first verse, and he makes it hypnotic anyway.

2. ZillaKami & SosMula – “Lamborghini Getaway”
So many of these new rappers are basically Juggalos, and this shouldn’t be a good thing, but it totally is.

3. Birdgang Lonnie Bands – “Mama Told Me”
Detroit rappers do cinematic frustration better than anyone.

4. Navy Blue – “Carlos” (Feat. Mike)
God bless this whole new wave of lo-fi rappers, going in over beats that sound like the movie score when the ship gets lost in the fog.

5. UnoTheActivist – “As A Young Boy”
I wish I could live inside this bass sound. I wish I could brush my teeth with this bass sound. I wish I could crumble up this bass sound and sprinkle it on my sandwiches.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO