Success at the register as it may have been, Rolling Papers feels even more out of place in Wiz Khalifa’s ever-expansive discography after just one year than it did when it was new. Khalifa has always been a good if not great hook man, dating back to at least 2007, but Rolling Papers wagered that handling his debut with experienced pop/R&B producers would be able to emphasize this. It simplified the Wiz even beyond his already limited palate of subjects, and made for a total air bubble of a listen. But he seemed to take the criticism—a measurable amount of which came from his initial internet followers—to heart in the following months. Taylor Allderdice was almost marketed as a tribute to Kush & Orange Juice, the sort-of out of nowhere 2010 mixtape that signalled Wiz was to be taken seriously (and, more notably, is a near sonic opposite to Rolling Papers’ sterile existence). But for an artist with just one serious album under their built whose career has mostly been built on underground word of mouth—or free music—that sophomore effort often proves more revealing than the first.
Such is the case with O.N.I.F.C., the unfortunately titled and cover art’d second album from Wiz Khalifa that corrects so much of what went wrong with Rolling Papers while making sure to note its successful existence. Take single “Work Hard, Play Hard” for example. To heads it most likely registers as mere filler, but not necessarily negligibly so. The verses are very well constructed, building from a simplistic call-and-response deal to tongue twisting rapid fire couplets and back again. It masks the somewhat stale subject matter from those who have no skin in Khalifa’s ability to “work hard, play hard”, and perhaps more importantly gives radio listeners something to be mildly impressed by before their favorite part comes back around again. Perhaps more importantly, the concessions are less linear through the rest of the album. “Got Everything” is the sort of song you’d think a pop rapper would have learned to fear by now, where the beat and hook/verse from the female vocalist (in this case Courtney Noelle) make it feel undeniably like their song. But he survives because he sounds like the sort of guy that would kid around on a track like that (sampled Demi Lovato, remember), and so he just sort of appears like a fog at the beginning and then he’s gone.
The fact that these sorts of pop fancies are very surface level to the O.N.I.F.C. experience is a little surprising, though, I must admit. “Paperbond” is a track that obviously owes a debt to LiveLoveA$AP, but it can really find its roots in Main Attrakionz Blackberry Ku$h as Wiz raps almost exactly the sort of success-rap that plays with middle class listeners, rather than accidentally belittling or accusing them. Another ID Labs track that’s just fun to sink into is “Fall Asleep”, a song that gives off a dull but surprising My Bloody Valentine vibe and drips almost effortlessly into the hypnotic “Time”, a track that’s almost entirely carried by ID Labs’ slowburn synth work and the cuts of Wiz’ simplistic mantra, “smokin’ weed while I drive” as driving instructors the world over cringe. He also entertains the population of rap fans obsessed with slow-moving backgrounds and laconically-hyper snares over and over. Whether it’s the all Cardo & Sledgren instrumental intro, similarly titled “Bluffin’” and “The Bluff” (one a gamble, the other a type of land plot) or seeming bonus tracks “The Plan” and “Medicated”, Wiz definitely makes plenty of nods towards the idea that one can maintain their “rapper cred” while penning tracks tolerable over radio signal inundation.
That’s not to say Wiz is always on his game. “Let It Go” revives Akon in a way that’s just… ugh. That song just doesn’t do any good for anyone. For all his adhering to type, he’s not exactly a dude that stands out when challenged, either. Guests take over tracks constantly. Berner on “Bluffin’” makes sense since to this point he seems little more than a weed dealer who raps, but you’ll find yourself waiting for Cam’ron on “The Bluff”, assuming “Got Everything” is Courtney Noelle’s song, wondering why Abel Tesfaye didn’t just keep “Remember You” for himself and placing the spotlight on Tuki Carter when “Rise Above” starts running. “It’s Nothin’” will remind you that Wiz may be able to cut that sort of trap oriented baller cut, but when you hear it against “Rise Above” you wonder why he cares to prove it. Even then, the Cabin Fever series is for his gangster-ish projects; we know he doesn’t fit that mold, so even if it makes sense for him to try and summarize his mixtape leanings on an album it’s a shame that, as with most rappers, it leads to undercutting what the rest of the album’s doing fairly well.
O.N.I.F.C. may not be perfect, as its cover art gives away from the jump. But as pop rap albums go, O.N.I.F.C. is beyond solid, full of immaculate production and airtight if simplistic rhymes about money, girls and weed. As background, travel or party music it’s a pretty unflappable collection, making good on all the promise that Khalifa’s failed to make fully good on in the years following Kush & Orange Juice. It’s a shame we had to wait until December to get it—summer breezes long for this kind of stuff.
// Notes from the Road
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