The golden age of rap lyricism, it would seem, is far behind us. Chuck D, KRS-One et al‘s time at the top is just a memory, their legacies growing more sepia-tinted with each passing year.
While provocative lyricism persists in scattered splinter cells – and the occasional high profile exception – mainstream rap seems to trade on beats and narcissism, its notable purveyors given to vapid themes utterly at odds with the returning social and political unrest their forebears faced square on.
Yet it is counterproductive to append the sins of the genre’s marquee names onto its newcomers, and one is bound to judge the emerging generation by its own merits. Enter 23-year-old Cameron Jibril Thomaz, better known as Wiz Khalifa.
First impressions, admittedly, could be better – the album title and cover immediately pointing towards the stoner rap that was lit, smoked and stubbed out long ago – and there’s an immediate and unwelcome suspicion that Khalifa’s existing rap sheet for marijuana trafficking could soon extend into crimes against music.
But it was surely not without reason that his Kush And Orange Juice mixtape trended so massively, and that Black And Yellow – which became the unofficial theme of his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers – topped the US charts. There simply has to be something about Wiz Khalifa.
Indeed, such conflicting viewpoints are borne out throughout Rolling Papers; a creature that flows musically – and even excels on occasion – but struggles thematically, its protagonist’s sentiments struggling to rise beyond the trivialities of drink, drugs, money and misogyny.
Opening track When I’m Gone is the album in microcosm: thoughtful piano entices the ear, expanding patiently into reverberating synth stabs, but not before Khalifa has set the scene with his first salvo: “They say all I rap about is bitches and champagne / You would too if every night you seen the same thing”. He goes on to expound the virtues of blowing as much money as possible.
From this point one hopes for more but is disappointed more often than not. On My Level’s slow-as-molasses flow sinks to new depths of inanity, leaving smoky question marks as to whether Khalifa is even playing the same crossover game as the likes of k-os, while smash hit Black And Yellow turns out to be rap-by-numbers and little more.
There are, however, one or two moments of lucidity: Roll Up’s pop pleasantries indicate some kind of likeability about Wiz, The Race excels as the result of lush production – despite Khalifa’s somewhat uninspiring course – and Fly Solo exhibits a fair imitation of B.o.B.‘s ongoing chart successes.
Such relative pleasures, though, are spread thinly over a sprawling album on which sharp wordplay, provocative themes or inventive flows are notable by their absence; notable to the extent, in fact, that their deficiency mars the stand-up production on most tracks. It’s not that rap has to have a social conscience to be engaging – Big Boi‘s Chico Dusty LP was one of 2010′s best albums – but Rolling Papers falls short on far too many other fronts to justify the hype about its creator.