The crossover hip-hop album is a much-maligned mainstay in a genre that prizes innovation, honesty and any other anti-pop sentiments that can be mustered. B.o.B’s debut was critically reviled, Wale’s Attention Deficit was just irrelevant and, most recently, Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers was such a colossal disappointment I couldn’t listen past the fourth track the first time I tried. And these are just a few examples, it’s a general trend repeated over and over again. To say that Wiz Khalifa fell into the same trap on Rolling Papers would be a review that practically writes itself. However, that isn’t the case here. Unlike many other rappers emerging from the underground or a strong string of mixtapes to a major label release, Wiz Khalifa is actually very suited to the pop-rap crossover album.
Wiz has an extremely impressive affinity for melody. That is the one trait that is the key to many of his successes on this album. He jams every track with multiple hooks, each one devastatingly infectious, in addition to bridges that serve the same purpose. It’s an ability that many other rappers hoping for a major label release would kill for, and Wiz has it in abundance. He even brings it into his verses, rapping in a manner that allows for a tune to come through, without drawing it out to the point of singing a la Kid Cudi. Wiz switches flows effortlessly, changing his delivery impressively at the drop of a dime.
His beat choices, for the most part, are great. Light, airy synths are the dominant force here, with a few forays into even poppier territory. “Fly Solo” is acoustic, post-B.o.B, lite rap-rock at its finest. If a song on this record is going to be a hit outside of “Black and Yellow,” it would be that one. And, on the topic of the album’s chart-topping single, it remains the undeniable standout on the album. If you haven’t listened to the track with good headphones and ignored it as it played on T.V., the radio and everywhere else in the world, go back and give it another try. The beat is, simply put, a masterpiece. Underneath the tune that characterizes the track is a menacing, complex beast of a song that lurches forward with nearly tangible momentum. In nearly any other rapper’s hands the song would still be a hit, a few others could have made it one of the best songs of the year or decade. Wiz doesn’t attempt to do that, he says very little of substance and attempts to make a song that is instantly recognizable, something he achieves immediately with the impressively simple hook.
"Black & Yellow"
It’s in that approach that lends the central flaw to Rolling Papers. No matter how good of a pop-rap album Wiz creates, it’s in no way the perfect crossover; sacrificing nothing in terms of content and creativity and retaining popular sensitivities. There’s a lot sacrificed here. Wiz fills a lot of verses without saying anything, a lot of catchiness without any real content. In his mixtape streak leading up to the release of this album, Wiz has established a persona in which he raps mostly about money, weed and girls. He sticks to that persona here. However, a guest verse from Curren$y on “Rooftops” proves that the subject matter isn’t necessarily always the issue, utilizing a dense, tongue-twisting verse that’s such a contrast to Wiz’s sing-song that he immediately steals the show.
In his defense, you are warned from the beginning what this album will be about. The album opener “When I’m Gone” begins with the line “They say all I rap about is bitches and champagne, you would too if every night you’re seeing the same thing.” There’s no apologies for the poppiness, he just goes for it, and succeeds better than most.