The affable Pittsburgh MC contrives a return to form
Apparently, even a successful major label album requires an apology. Last month, Wiz Khalifa posted a letter to his fans on Tumblr that said this of 2011's Rolling Papers: "The album did great numbers, but creatively wasn’t my best work." Wiz's latest mixtape, Taylor Allderdice, named after his Pittsburgh high school and the first since that apologia, has been billed as a return to the form of his earlier mixtapes.
The problem is, Rolling Papers is actually Wiz's most focused and rewarding collection of songs to date. It opened the windows to the Pittsburgh rapper's weed-filled crib and let in the perfect amount of outside, industry air. That album's "On My Level," featuring Too $hort, sounds as dark and pot paranoid as anything Wiz has ever done; "Roll Up," the other hit collaboration with mega-producers Stargate, is still one of the sweetest rap songs in recent memory. Even its worst songs, like "Fly Solo," a fratty acoustic rap jam, is cloying in a charming way. On Rolling Papers, Wiz came off as genuinely affable, slack-jawed by his ridiculous success, and though a little cocky, deservedly so.
Taylor Allderdice contains constant, veering on Drake-like references to how much money Wiz has, and it comes off as priggish, rather than, "Whoa dude, I have all this money now." On "My Favorite Song," he raps, "I live the life you wish you had," and, well, who is he talking to here? Other rappers? His fans? It's obnoxious. Fiancee Amber Rose "raps" a few bars on "Never Been Part II," which is way more egregious than his Stargate collaborations. Nearly every song ends with clips from a fawning interview with Wiz held by Rob Markman, formerly of XXL and currently, MTV News. This is not a return to his roots.
The mixtape's production is also being framed as much more in his wheelhouse. Noz, over at MTV Hive referred to Taylor Allderdice as Wiz's "return to weed fog etherealism," but Rolling Papers was "weed fog etherealism" on a bigger budget, and it sounded great: "The Race" was Bacharach on hash; "Rooftops," a surprisingly uncompromising Wiz/Curren$y collaboration over trippy, synth-guitar. What didn't work on Rolling Papers is what has always kinda sucked about Wiz's work. Namely, way too much confidence in his terrible hooks, and a lack of ideas masquerading as knowing how to stay in his lane. All of that is found in abundance on Taylor Allderdice, as well.
And once you're listening to a giggling, sometimes singing, twerp from Pittsburgh, your right to run screaming from a nice big proper pop hook has been revoked, OK? But Wiz is the ultimate, people-pleasing MC, so he apologized to his core even though he didn't have to, contrived a "for the fans" narrative/angle for Taylor Allderdice, and then created a moderately more diffuse mixtape about how much tour and major label money he has. Perhaps that's some brilliant balancing act between art and commerce and then some more commerce, but it seems more like the messy, "whatever, man" reasoning of a stoner.
Last month, Yelawolf, whose debut, Radioactive, truly was an unmitigated disaster of major label meddling — literally split down the middle between awesome and embarrassing — quietly released The Slumdon Bridge EP. The mixtape, a collaboration with genre-hopping British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, doesn't retreat back to the Trunk Muzik sound, or hide behind a Tumblr apology. Instead, it doubles down on Radioactive's country-fried, dubstep, hard pop-rock sound and does it much, much better. That's how you own your divisive, major label debut.