The Number Ones

February 19, 2011

The Number Ones: Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

I’ve never had a conversation with Wiz Khalifa, but I can tell you firsthand that he’s really like that. A couple of months ago, working on a New York Times Magazine profile on Too Short, I went out to Seattle — really an Indian reservation an hour south of Seattle — where Short was part of Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s High School Reunion tour. Short was one of the only guests on Wiz’s 2011 major-label debut Rolling Papers, and they performed their track “On My Level” together on the tour. (“On My Level” peaked at #52. Too Short’s highest-charting lead-artist single, 1990’s “The Ghetto,” peaked at #42. He also got to #16 as a guest on Kelis’ “Bossy” in 2006.)

I was hoping to get a quote from Wiz for the article, but Wiz didn’t want to do any interviews that hadn’t been cleared through his people first. Fair enough. So I didn’t talk to Wiz. But I was in that backstage area all day, and Wiz was in there, sitting back on a couch with a permanent wreathe of weed smoke around his head, for the entire day. His presence was overwhelmingly mellow and weirdly comforting. Nobody acted starstruck around Wiz, but everyone was happy to see him.

At one point in the evening, someone came up to Too Short and handed him a giant cloth Wal-Mart bag full of shrooms. Things like this have happened every time I’ve spent significant time around a famous rapper. That’s just part of the famous-rapper lifestyle; people constantly want to gift you with free drugs. Seems nice. Short wasn’t sure about traveling with that much contraband, but he said he’d see if Wiz needed some extra shrooms. Wiz did not, in fact, need any extra shrooms. Wiz has got all the shrooms that he could possibly want. In fact, he’s the founder of Mistercap, which describes itself as “a mushroom-forward wellness brand.” Seems about right.

Wiz Khalifa is basically the most accessible, approachable face-tatted rapper in history. That’s his deal. Wiz Khalifa is not a great rapper in the way that people usually distinguish great rappers; even his fans, I think, would acknowledge this. Personally, I can’t think of one single quotable Wiz Khalifa line in the man’s long history. But I’d know Wiz’s laugh, a sort of brain-fogged cackle-guffaw, from across a parking lot. Wiz is a vibe specialist, an easygoing good-time facilitator, a human cartoon character. Without a major label behind him, Wiz used that persona to turn himself into a grassroots rap star — no pun intended. If Wiz had never made a proper hit, that laidback aura would’ve still made him a symbol of a particular rap era. But Wiz also made the right song at the right time, and that’s why we’re talking about him here today.

Cameron Jibril Thomaz was born in North Dakota, where his parents were stationed. (When Wiz was born, Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” was the #1 song in America.) As a military brat, Wiz spent his childhood moving all over the world — Germany, the UK, Japan — before landing in Pittsburgh, the city that he’d become synonymous with. Wiz started rapping as a kid. When he was a teenager, he interned at a local recording studio, and he impressed the heads of Rostrum Records, a local indie. He released Show And Prove, his first independent album, just before his 19th birthday.

Before Wiz Khalifa, the city of Pittsburgh had never produced a national rapper of any note. But Wiz had the advantage of coming up in the internet era, when it didn’t really matter where you were from. Wiz loved Midwestern quick-tongue rappers like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but on his earliest mixtapes, he had more of a punchy, forceful East Coast style. Even then, he radiated lackadaisical ease. Wiz never sounded like he was working hard, but he sure was prolific. In his first few years, Wiz released two independent albums and a heaping pile of mixtapes. In rap’s so-called blog era, that constant churn of new music was a big plus. A rap site like Nah Right would update constantly, with dozens of new songs every day. If you could make sure that your name kept constantly appearing on those sites, you could generate some real buzz for yourself.

In 2007, the 20-year-old Wiz Khalifa signed a joint deal (heh) with Rostrum and Warner Bros. Warner had no idea what to do with this kid. The only thing that of any note that Wiz released on Warner was “Say Yeah,” a single that sampled Alice Deejay’s cheesily euphoric 1999 Euro-house jam “Better Off Alone.” (On the Hot 100, “Better Off Alone” peaked at #27.) That kind of unexpected sample was still pretty novel at the time, and it was enough to win Wiz some real internet attention. “Say Yeah” appeared on a couple of Billboard charts, but it wasn’t a proper hit, and it missed the Hot 100 entirely. Wiz kept recording music, but Warner never let him release an album. In 2009, Wiz and Warner parted ways.

Compared to his Warner label bosses, Wiz Khalifa had a better idea of where rap was going. In a Stereogum interview last year, Wiz told the story of how he started posting freestyles on YouTube. Warner was handing out Flip cameras to its artists, asking them to document their everyday lives for fans. Wiz asked for one, but the label didn’t consider him to be enough of a priority: “They’re like, ‘No, you got to be a certain tier of an artist,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, really? That’s cool.’ But I looked the camera up on my computer at the time, and I found out you could buy the camera at Best Buy — it was like $60. I went and bought the camera and then I was like, ‘Cool. What’s the platform I can upload these videos on?’ I didn’t know where else to put them, so I made my YouTube channel, and that’s how it all happened.” These days, that’s the only real way to build a public-facing career. Wiz got there early.

Wiz also released a lot of music. As an unsigned artist, Wiz was anything but adrift. Over his late-’00s mixtapes, Wiz refined his approach, style, and persona. Wiz’s mixtapes were free to download, and there was always a new one to process. While his songs usually weren’t especially memorable, he always sounded like a good hang. Wiz had an especially golden on-record chemistry with the similarly perma-stoned New Orleans rapper Curren$y, who was coming off of his own go-nowhere deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money label. Their collaborative 2009 tape How Fly was a smooth, pleasant ride, and it’s probably still my favorite thing that Wiz has ever done. (Curren$y’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2016 August Alsina/Lil Wayne collab “Bottom Of The Bottle,” peaked at #97.)

With those mixtapes, Wiz Khalifa proved that he didn’t need a label. He started selling out venues that his major-label peers couldn’t fill. By 2010, the groundswell was impossible to ignore. When Wiz released his 2010 tape Kush & Orange Juice, he briefly crashed the mixtape website DatPiff. In a pre-streaming era, when Billboard charts weren’t really properly tracing rap consumers’ habits, that was the clearest sign that someone had gotten really, really huge. Wiz’s style — conversational and off-the-cuff verses, loopy singsong choruses, lyrics about partying rather than being tough — appealed to a broad spectrum. Like Drake before him, Wiz also expanded his sound by freestyling over non-rap tracks — like the soundtrack of the video game Chrono Trigger, or Empire Of The Sun’s electro-pop jam “Walking On A Dream.” (“Walking On A Dream,” Empire Of The Sun’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #65.)

In 2010, Wiz Khalifa was one of XXL‘s Freshman 10, and his class also included future hitmakers like J. Cole, Big Sean, and the late Nipsey Hussle. Those guys were a pretty good cross-spectrum of the new form of internet-rap stardom that was still developing. I reviewed Kush & Orange Juice for Pitchfork, and I probably underrated it just slightly. A few months later, I saw Wiz play a sold-out Metro in Chicago, and the energy inside that room was pretty amazing. The crowd was extremely young and extremely diverse, and everyone knew all the words to every song. Wiz built that audience on his own, and he turned down big opportunities — signing with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music label, touring with Drake. When I saw Wiz, he’d already signed to Atlantic and released “Black And Yellow,” but the single hadn’t taken off yet. Nobody necessarily expected “Black And Yellow” to take off the way that it did. It was the little song that could.

Wiz Khalifa recorded “Black And Yellow” with Stargate, the Norwegian production duo who’d been racking up massive chart hits for years. The Stargate guys were more comfortable with R&B than most of their Scandinavian peers, and they first made their mark working on hits from Ne-Yo and Rihanna. They loved rap, but they’d never really worked on a proper rap record before “Black And Yellow.” In 2018, Stargate’s Tor Erik Hermansen told Entertainment Weekly that “Black And Yellow” was the duo’s “first serious rap record.” Working with Wiz, they first pitched him on their harder beats, but “Black And Yellow” was the one that really stuck with him. When Wiz heard the airy synth riff, he immediately started singing the title phrase.

Pittsburgh is the only big American city where all three major teams — the Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins — wear the same colors. More cities should do that. It’s great branding. That black-and-yellow color scheme is based on the Pittsburgh flag, and those two colors work as a way to represent the city. “Black And Yellow” isn’t necessarily about Pittsburgh; Wiz never even says the city’s name on the song. Instead, it’s more about Wiz’s car, a souped-up yellow Dodge Challenger with a black stripe down the middle. But Wiz picked out that color scheme because of Pittsburgh, and the song became a readymade local anthem. When you’re the only rap star from your city, you’ve automatically got the entire town behind you. When you make a song that turns the colors of your city’s flag into a sticky-ass earworm, you might as well run for mayor.

Stargate are pop producers, but when Wiz rapped on one of their beats, it didn’t sound like a sellout move. Instead, it sounded like a juiced-up take on the sound of Wiz’s mixtapes. Wiz never made hard, confrontational music. Instead, he was drawn to floaty, melodic beats. On “Black And Yellow,” the Stargate guys came up with a nattering keyboard line that could probably work on a rave track. (It’s not too hard to imagine that synth riff belonging to a track like Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone.”) Stargate understand the sonic language of rap, and they keep the tempo to a slow lope, making sure the snares and hi-hats and digital bass-globs all hit at the right moments. But “Black And Yellow” has a pop structure. Wiz never switches up his delivery, but the song has a proper bridge, with an entirely different keyboard melody. The little ear-candy touches don’t necessarily jump out of the speaker, but they help the song stand out.

Wiz basically says nothing on “Black And Yellow.” In the laziest terms, he lays out a lifestyle where he’s always partying and pulling girls. That sleepiness in entirely in keeping with his persona. The closest thing to a quotable line on “Black And Yellow” is this: “Stay high like how I’m supposed to do/ That crowd underneath them clouds can’t get close to you/ And my car look unapproachable.” That sounds like something he made up off the top of his head, and it probably was. But the chorus can get stuck in your head all day, and the verses are short enough that they never kill that buzz. Wiz never pushes himself, and if he did, it wouldn’t work. If Wiz suddenly started rapping hard, he might kill the vibe. Instead, “Black And Yellow” works as a fairly accurate representation of the Wiz Khalifa who won over all those fans in the first place.

Wiz Khalifa and director Bill Paladino filmed the “Black And Yellow” video guerrilla-style, without permits, in Pittsburgh. Wiz would just say where he was going on Twitter, and vast mobs of kids would come out to jump around and twirl Terrible Towels behind him. The song took on extra local resonance in the winter of 2010, when the Steelers went on a run to the Super Bowl. In January 2011, the Steelers beat the Jets in Pittsburgh to win the AFC championship, and Wiz performed “Black And Yellow” in the stadium. I’m from Baltimore, so it’s fuck the Steelers all day, but it was still cool to see this local-pride song so deeply aligned with the city’s NFL team. The Ravens have never had anything like that. (I feel compelled to mention that the Steelers lost that Super Bowl. The Ravens have never lost a Super Bowl. I’m just saying.)

While the Steelers’ run was happening, “Black And Yellow” percolated through popular culture, and Wiz took advantage. In December, Wiz released an all-star remix with Snoop Dogg, Juicy J, and T-Pain. (Snoop and T-Pain have already been in this column a bunch of times. Juicy J will eventually appear in the column as a guest. As lead artist, Juicy’s highest-charting single is the 2012 Lil Wayne/2 Chainz collab “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” which peaked at #29. As a member of Three 6 Mafia, Juicy also reached #13 with 2005’s “Stay Fly.”) The remix was Wiz’s first time working with Snoop Dogg, but the two were a natural pair, even though Wiz is more than a decade younger than Snoop. They’re both skinny, good-natured stoners, and they’re both pretty lanky.

An aside about heights: Montell Jordan is the tallest artist ever to score a #1 hit, but I’m pretty sure that Snoop and Wiz, both 6’4″, are tied for second. That’s normal-people tall, not tall tall. There’s also 6’6″ Calvin Harris, who will soon appear as a guest in this column. I will concede that both Montell Jordan and Calvin Harris are Actually Tall, even though I could still play timbales on those guys’ domes. Any discussion of the chart success of people my height or taller would begin and end with Shaq’s rap career. Pop stars, for the most part, are short.

“Black And Yellow” finally ascended to #1 just after the Super Bowl, and it eventually went platinum six times over. The song had already fallen from the top when Wiz released his Atlantic debut Rolling Papers. That album showed that Wiz didn’t need to change his style for a mass audience because had basically always made fluffy pop-rap. Whereas Wiz’s Atlantic labelmate and fellow blog-era prospect B.o.B. tried to twist his music up into unnatural shapes, Wiz just allowed his voice to float over slightly more expensive-sounding beats. Wiz followed “Black And Yellow” with “Roll Up,” another catchy Stargate production, and that one peaked at #13.

Wiz kept releasing Rolling Papers singles, and some of them did really well. “No Sleep,” the album’s fourth single, went all the way to #6. (It’s a 7.) Rolling Papers eventually went double platinum; it’s still Wiz’s biggest-selling album. Later in 2011, Wiz moved to Los Angeles and co-starred with Snoop Dogg in the straight-to-DVD stoner buddy-comedy Mac & Devin Go To High School. I’ve never seen that movie, and it looks like it’s really only barely a movie. But the soundtrack went gold, and Snoop and Wiz scored another hit when their Bruno Mars collaboration “Young, Wild & Free” peaked at #7. (It’s a 6.)

Wiz Khalifa kept up a pretty hectic recording pace. For a while, it seemed like he had at least one verse on every big rap album, and he released his next two LPs within a few years. Those albums both went platinum, but neither of them launched any huge crossover hits on the level of “Black And Yellow” or even “No Sleep.” The clubby “Work Hard, Play Hard,” the biggest hits from 2012’s O.N.I.F.C., peaked at #17. 2014’s Blacc Hollywood had the anthemic chant-along “We Dem Boyz,” which seemed like it was everywhere but only reached #43.

The chart run of “We Dem Boyz” indicates how rap had an uphill battle on the Hot 100 in the first half of the ’00s. Before streaming services like Spotify fully took over, rap’s core audience used YouTube or mixtape sites like DatPiff to access their music. These kids weren’t buying iTunes downloads, and they definitely weren’t buying CDs, so that consumption had no effect on the Hot 100. When streaming services came in, rap fans were the first to adapt, and we’ll eventually see evidence of that shift in this column. In 2011, a straight-up rap song — one that wasn’t from a white person, anyway — could only top the Hot 100 if all the dominoes fell exactly right. But Wiz Khalifa leads a charmed life, and he’s conquered the Hot 100 more than once. I’ll tell you all about it when we see him again.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: There were about one million rap freestyles over the “Black And Yellow” beat, and most of them were not terribly significant. Most of the time, rappers would change the chorus to talk about their own local teams’ colors. Former Number Ones artist Lil Wayne grew up in New Orleans, but he doesn’t put on for the Saints. Instead, Wayne is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan. As it happens, the Packers were the team who beat the Steelers in the 2011 Super Bowl, and they adapted Wayne’s freestyle “Green And Yellow” as their own anthem. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Snoop Dogg and the Game rapped over a rap-flavored version of the “Black And Yellow” beat, turning it into the Lakers song “Purp & Yellow.” Here’s the video that they made for that track:

(The aforementioned Snoop Dogg has already been in this column a few times. Game’s highest-charting single, the 2005 50 Cent collab “Hate It Or Love It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. So many books up in my watch, I can’t tell what the time is. Wait. No. That doesn’t make any sense. I can’t think of any clever way adjust the “Black And Yellow” lyrics to say this, but buy the book.

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