Wednesday, August 20, 2014

album review: 'blacc hollywood' by wiz khalifa

The last time I talked about weed rap was way back last year when I reviewed Sonic Dopamine, the album from Cousin Ayjay, which was more of a layered and intriguing concept album about getting stoned than anything else. Even though I haven't really revisited it much since, I still respect it for some interesting wordplay, great production and a fair amount of ambition.

Yeah, we're not getting that here. Wiz Khalifa may have started with some vestige of street cred and nuggets of insight on his mixtapes, but that degenerated quickly when he burst into the mainstream in 2011 with his major label debut on Atlantic with Rolling Papers, quickly becoming the mainstream-accessible weed rapper with a strong focus on pop-friendly hooks. And to his credit, as much as Wiz Khalifa wasn't a technically strong lyrical MC, he occasionally managed to pull together some decent hooks and lightweight production that was pretty tolerable. I'll admit it, 'Roll Up' was surprisingly sincere, and his collaboration with Snoop Dogg and Bruno Mars 'Young, Wild & Free' was one of my favourite songs of 2012, even though Wiz Khalifa was probably the weakest performer on that track. And yet ever since that high point, Wiz Khalifa seemed to get less and less interesting as both a technical lyricist and with regards to his content, focused on ever shallower weed and luxury rap. And what was frustrating about him is that, well, we already have a Snoop Dogg who can step up to the mic with effortless charisma and marginally better wordplay, and Wiz Khalifa always pales in comparison. But even as his verses got more vapid, he tended to have solid enough hooks on songs like 'Work Hard, Play Hard' and 'We Own It', even though he seemed to be succumbing to Autotune abuse.

And let me make this clear: the opening singles for this record were not giving me any good feelings about this record - hell, I was planning on skipping it altogether. But I thought, 'Hey, I gave Kid Ink and Iggy Azalea a chance, and they both managed to surprise me, maybe this record isn't that bad, right?'

Here's the thing: I want to like this album, because I honestly don't dislike Wiz Khalifa. But if I needed evidence that he's missing his mark as an artist, Blacc Hollywood would be the perfect example, because this record feels unfocused, confused, and a lot less fun than it should have been. And while I know some of this isn't his fault - he's a commercial rapper, and that means he's stuck saying and doing certain things if he wants to remain popular - enough of the problems eventually circle back to Wiz Khalifa in a bad way, which means I can't really give this album a pass.

So let's talk about what I like about this album... and honestly, there's not a lot. When your best guest verses on this album are Juicy J and Nicki Minaj verses the could have dropped in their sleep and Chevy Woods trying to bring some visceral grit, you're running into problems, but I honestly didn't mind it when Ty Dolla Sign handled a few of the hooks. Hell, if I'm being embarrassingly honest, I didn't even mind it when Wiz Khalifa jumped on the hooks because he has a earnest quality to his voice that shows he's really trying to sell some of this material - and on most of his weed raps and the love jam 'Promises', he comes close to making it work. The odd thing about Wiz Khalifa is that he knows his way around a catchy hook, some of which are grounded in decent melodies, which are what you need to be a good pop rapper.

But where the album starts losing steam almost immediately is in its tone. Instrumentally, this album tends to fall into the dreary synths and trap-inspired hi-hats of modern hip-hop that are trying way too hard to be dark and serious, albeit in a hazy, washed-out sort of way with the drifting strings trying to add some gravitas and power. And there are points where it kind of works: the strings melody is the only thing redeemable about 'We Dem Boys', and that strings/synth balance works pretty well on 'Promises', 'KK', 'House In The Hills', and 'So High'. And when the production gets a little punchier and diverse and lighter, Wiz Khalifa can sound even better, like on the Dr. Luke-produced 'Stayin Out All Night' and 'True Colors'. But unfortunately, most of the instrumentation is much more concerned with sounding eerie and dark and moody, and like I've said time and time again, it doesn't work well when you're gunning for a party vibe or to relax and smoke and not confront internal demons, and it especially doesn't work when you have Wiz Khalifa on the microphone, who doesn't have a hardcore bone in his body. 

See, here's the thing: I get the feeling that very early on Wiz Khalifa jumped into the lane of being a weed rapper because nobody else was doing it convincingly in the mainstream, and it gave him a unique facet of his identity on which he was at least decent. Hell, 'So High' works in a blissed-out sort of way and 'KK' takes the luxury rap template and applies it to Wiz Khalifa getting his own brand of pot, which is at least different. But I get the feeling Wiz Khalifa feels pigeonholed in that role and on songs like 'House In The Hills', he goes off about how he feels like he's being judged and marginalized for being a pothead where in reality he's got more to say. And throughout this album, you can tell he's trying to step towards other topics in hip-hop: the call-response party of 'We Dem Boyz', the player vibe of 'Ass Drop' and 'The Sleaze', or even the luxury thug of 'Raw' or 'Still Down'.

And it's kind of amazing how lousy he is here. Most of this comes through in a broad lack of imagination in his wordplay - Wiz Khalifa has never really jumped on the psychedelic angle for marijuana, which tends to make his weed rap a little basic in terms of description, but basic goes to straight up incoherent, corny, and completely unconvincing when he goes into other topics. He lacks the hyperbole of 2 Chainz or the creativity of Lil Wayne, neither of which are always selling points or standards of quality for either artist, but at least they fit with these topics, where Wiz Khalifa comes across as really uncomfortable. It's worst on 'Raw', where he tries to make booking flights with Miley Cyrus sound 'raw' with zero self-awareness against a skin-crawling chintzy synth line, or on 'Ass Drop', which features the chipmunk voice effect and is only saved from being awful by a not-terrible chorus melody. And look, it's been said before and it bears repeating: Wiz Khalifa is not strong as a technical MC. Between rhyming words with themselves, extremely basic punchlines and syllabic rhyming, and often times dropping the poetic meter altogether, he can come across as really sloppy behind the microphone. 

And this comes back to the biggest problem: if Wiz Khalifa doesn't want to be marginalized for just being a pothead and wants to say more, maybe he should rap about something more than weed or do it better, or when he does change up his subject he can bring something new to the table I haven't heard a hundred times before done better. The one direction I can see for Wiz Khalifa is more sincere relationship songs in the pseudo-R&B lane with Drake, because if the instrumental tone was lighter, his earnestness could be a big selling point. But then again, when you have songs like the anti-golddigging song 'Hope' or 'Ass Drop' or any of the other awkward posturing towards girls on this album like on 'We Dem Boyz'... look, you get judged by what you put out. A running theme is that Wiz Khalifa 'works hard' and yet it comes so easy because he apparently 'deserves' success - aside from making him a lot less likable, maybe he's not working as hard as he thinks he is, and as a weed rapper, if he's working hard he's doing it wrong.

In the end, I don't hate this album, but I do wish it was a lot better. You can make the argument it's not Wiz Khalifa's fault that hip-hop production is much darker and bleaker which is a terrible fit for his brand of pop-friendly weed rap, but I'm not letting him off the hook here. In other words, this record's a 4/10 and no recommendation. Wiz, I can appreciate you've got your own lane, but next time try working smarter, not harder.

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