Wiz Khalifa’s ego soldiers on

Pittsburgh needs a music scene. Not just a “music scene” in the sense that touring bands grace Pittsburgh with their honorary presence, but also a “music scene” in the sense that the city can become a breeding ground for up-and-coming artists. Although the city is overflowing with creativity and talent, few artists become successful outside of the city limits — if they even make it that far.

Enter Wiz Khalifa, the city’s answer to the lack of native artists. Khalifa, whose real name is Cameron Thomaz, is a Pittsburgh high-school MC signed to Rostrum Records. He has a mixtape, entitled Welcome to Pistolvania, that is gaining recognition from local newspapers and radio stations.

A mixtape differs from a traditional record because it is much more focused on the rapping than on the music. It is meant to create buzz about a certain rapper before his or her legitimate CD is released. Less money, advertising, and general publicity are devoted to a mixtape, because record executives expect word of mouth to be the most powerful initial distributor. Once the mixtape has been well-hyped and distributed, the record labels release a bigger and better CD.

So, when Khalifa’s mixtape landed in my hands late last week, I had high expectations for the young rapper. I expected infectious flow, supportive-yet-simple beats, and, most importantly, intelligent, educated rhymes.

I got very little of what I expected. The beats were dark and heavy, with the stereotypical rap/gangster/street attitude. The rapping itself was no different. I thought, “A high school senior rapping about how good he is and the rough life on the streets? Am I the only one who’s confused here?”
“[The streets] don’t want to hear commercial, poppy stuff,” said Benjy Grinberg, who signed Khalifa, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this month. “They want to hear what you have to say.” Fair enough, I thought. But unfortunately, Khalifa has very few interesting things to say. In “Me,” Khalifa wastes 4:13 of his audience’s valuable time glorifying himself — a high school senior — and his God-given talent: “Who is on the grind?/ Me/ Winnin’ all the time/ Me/ ’Bout them dolla signs/ Me.”

Sorry Wiz, Kanye’s already got enough ego for the music world... and at least he deserves to brag. In the opening track, “Oh No,” Wiz raps over a hackneyed beat of digital claps and synthesized strings about, yep, his glory: “Yeah, you hot in your hood, I’m burning towns down ... Wiz Khalifa got that fast to that slow flow/ Cash-gettin’ mojo ... play it back they like, ‘oh no.’”

I mentioned that Kanye deserves to brag. Even though Kanye himself doesn’t have many interesting things to say, he makes up for it with fabulous music behind his raps. Who else can sample blues legend Ray Charles, jazz icon Lester Young, and pop singer Adam Levine of Maroon 5 all on the same record, and make catchy and danceable beats? Khalifa and his DJ, DJ Huggy, have done the opposite. They assembled 20 tracks of stale rhymes and unoriginal beats that make me remember why I used to hate rap so much. Regardless of how important the music is in the mixtape, it’s important for the beats to encourage originality and substance in the rapping.

One track out of the 20 just barely caught my attention. In “Soldier,” Khalifa shows off his true strength — his flow — when he raps over the catchy bass-line-driven beat. With a touch of keyboards and strings, the beat brings back the brilliant simplicity that Dr. Dre’s legendary Chronic 2001 record once coined. The hook, sung by Gene Stovall, adds just what the rest of Khalifa’s music lacks: a catchy, soulful chorus that the mainstream audiences can grab onto. However, if you actually listen to the words, you’ll realize that this really isn’t a great hook: “I’m a soldier/ Wiz been the best/ brush your shoulders...” But, when Khalifa opens his best song with, “I will never sell myself short, I’m too cocky ... I think dudes is mad ’cause you not me/ So you get a pen and a pad and you copy!” that’s about as good a hook as he’ll get.

If Wiz Khalifa gets over his ego and realizes that his flow is just about the only thing going for him right now, he may still have the potential to become a respected rapper. The music industry has enough larger-than-life rappers (like Ludacris) to look at Khalifa and toss his mixtape in the trash. If he channels his talent more carefully and puts himself in the position to say something respectable (let’s face it, Mr. Khalifa’s rap skills are not the most pressing issues in America today), he may be able to become the Immortal Technique or Common of the future. And hey, he just might be able to carry Pittsburgh back to the top of the nation’s music scene... where it deserves to be.