As a genre, hip-hop thrives on relentless re-invention and creativity. Between the pop-rap excess of Drake and Kanye West, the nihilistic misery of Future and Ty Dolla $ign, and the social realism of Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, the hip-hop sphere is more creative than ever, and as such, it takes a lot of talent and dedication for an artist to stand out. This all makes Wiz Khalifa something of a curiosity, since he is hardly an experimental artist, and he lacks many of the technical skills that typically define “great” rappers. Until this point in his career, Khalifa has largely been held up by his melodic skills, and ability to create catchy hits, which are unfortunately absent from his new album, Khalifa.
Since his breakout hit Black and Yellow, Khalifa’s releases have received substantial sales, but little in the way of critical acclaim. Blacc Hollywood in particular was criticised for having little substance to match its style. If anyone anticipating Khalifa has hoped that his split with his ex-wife Amber Rose would open up the possibility of introspection, they will be sorely disappointed. Khalifa revolves around three core thematic pillars: smoking weed, getting paid, and sleeping with various women. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as lots of rappers have explored this subject matter to great effect, but Khalifa lacks the technical flow and wordplay to make himself stand out.
Lead single Bake Sale benefits from a typically catchy chorus from Travis Scott, but Khalifa’s contributions to the song are bland and vapid. The lyrics revolve around selling marijuana, expectedly, but there’s little to nothing in the way of detail or colour to the descriptions. Khalifa is a rapper who likes to annotate his own Genius page, but his annotations are barely related to the lyrics – “last time someone tried to push some bad weed was in South America” – a point that would have added much needed depth to the track. What is there rarely extends past “I often blaze an ounce a day / you at my crib, it’s no mistake”. The vast roster of producers involved in the track include Juicy J and Lex Luger, but the beat they’ve provided is serviceable trap-flavoured hip-hop. It’s pleasant to listen to, but undeniably generic. The rest of the album largely follows this formula, with bland beats, dull lyrics, and noticeably little in the way of humour or wordplay.
The strongest track on the album is Celebrate, which features Rico Love, and a distinctive beat by Finatik N Zac and Jim Jonsin. The tuned-down vocal chops sound straight from a Clams Casino song, and give the track a cloud-rap flavour befitting the subject matter. The chorus is melancholic and catchy, with lush synthesisers that envelop the senses. Khalifa’s clumsy flow threatens to derail the verses – “never wanna be broke / broke n****s just hate” – but the atmosphere of the beat keeps the mood intact. The most perplexing moment of the album comes near the end of Zoney. Over a minimal and mellow Knucklehead beat, Khalifa reflects on his youth and rise to success – “I’m just taking all my dreams, trying to make it fact / putting it all for my team, trying to make it crack”. After the final chorus, Khalifa plays a clip of himself speaking to his son Sebastian (who receives a feature on the track). The clip is sweet, but the saccharine moment speaks to the way the track is out of sync with the bombast and braggadocio of the rest of the album.
Khalifa is an embodiment of the status-quo in a genre that is in a constant state of re-invention. It lacks distinctive lyrics, flow, beats, and in a first for Khalifa, distinctive melodies. It’s sure to be a financial success, with Khalifa’s Oscar nomination for See You Again, but it lacks the charisma and pop sensibilities that made him a success in the first place.