It’s always been easy to hate on Wiz Khalifa. The Pittsburgh local came to prominence a few years ago with the ubiquitous ‘Black and Yellow’ which had the whole world unknowingly singing the praises of that city’s sporting colours and led to a heap of spin-offs from rappers in other cities, substituting their own hues – perhaps most memorably Snoop Dogg’s ‘Purple and Yellow’ (the LA Lakers’ team colours). So he could write a song about colours. Fantastic. Those three words seemed to define the rapper’s career for the longest time until his next big contribution to popular culture: picking up Kanye West’s scraps and dating model/I don’t even know what Amber Rose. Since then he might have released an album or two (‘Young, Wild and Free’ with Snoop Dogg representing the commercial zenith) but it was his appearance alongside Miguel at this year’s Grammy Awards that really confirmed my distaste for him. Performing what was apparently his song featuring the hugely talented Miguel, Wiz was lacklustre at best, shirtless and generally unnecessary. Part of the gig when it comes to rap music is playing into your role as a swaggering artiste. Wiz, it seemed, was so immersed in the aesthetics on the periphery he forgot about the cultural core of things.
‘The Race’, from Wiz’s 2011 album ‘Rolling Papers’ takes the smoked-out vibes that percolate through the rest of his discography and translate them into something that is eminently listenable. Weed culture, like a swag-tastic impression, is often an integral part of being a rapper these days. References to the drug seem to punctuate most West Coast artists’ work and, being from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which doesn’t slot easily into any of the existing hip-hop hubs in places like New York, Atlanta, Florida, Illinois or California, Wiz has very closely aligned his work with his West Coast equivalents. As with fellow Pittsburgh local Mac Miller who now lives in LA, Wiz’s tracks have tended to have undertones of marijuana consumption, even if not explicitly identified. That’s the first thing I like about ‘The Race’. Although at the outset the first thing you hear is a lighter sparking up and Wiz’s declaration that ‘the good weed’s lit on this one’, the drug seems to have more of an impact on the track’s sound than it’s lyrical content.
The astral synths are what the track is all about. They riff on in the background, subterranean or underwater, constantly blunted so that Wiz’s voice, distinctive and loud, can be heard high in the mix above them. Interestingly, the volume of the vocals on the chorus, bolstered by warm harmonies, seem to have been lowered such that the track maintains its levels throughout, never much louder in one place than in any other. This structure lends itself to Wiz’s approach to rap on the track which appears fairly stream-of-conscious with associations arbitrarily plucked from the bed of muffled synths. There’s no particular coherence to the lyrical material Wiz grapples with bar the overarching idea of winning ‘the race’ that is being a young, successful rapper, but even that seems just a convenient way to vaguely tie together everything else that fills the verses. In the end, the track is made not by the solidity of thematic premises nor the debatable quality of Wiz’s singing voice but by the way it takes his weed lifestyle and translates it sonically into something that I’d happily listen to for a few more minutes. There is no brilliant kernel of lyric, no exceptional production or vocal performances but there is no deluge of sound, no overcompensating, no rush, either.
Wiz Khalifa – ‘The Race’