iz Khalifa seems all too aware that music has long had its share of one-hit wonders and that Hip Hop seems to be a genre in which fans are always looking for the next big thing.
That’s one reason why last year’s release of his highly anticipated second major-label album, O.N.I.F.C., was pushed back to December.
“That’s where you get the delays and stuff,” Khalifa says, “because we really wanted to make sure the roll-out is special and that it hits the right way and it doesn’t just come and go and that it’s something that people really, really hold onto for a long time.”
Khalifa’s first major-label album, Rolling Papers, was a major success, selling about 800,000 copies and making the rapper— who, as one might guess from that 2011 album’s title, makes no secret of his fondness for weed and a good time — one of the major new names in Hip Hop.
Rolling Papers, with its melodic, almost poppy sound and soulful beats and grooves, was a good start, Khalifa says, but he feels O.N.I.F.C. took his music to a new level.
“On Rolling Papers, I tried a lot of different things that other people weren’t doing. … It was worth trying and having some fun with,” Khalifa says. “But (O.N.I.F.C.) is more or less just the biggest step forward and I feel like it’s the best thing in terms for me creatively, as far as singles, as far as visuals, as far as artwork. The whole project is just … really consistent with my vision of what a sophomore album should be.”
Khalifa talks in general about how the music evolved stylistically on the second album, but stays away from specifics. Still, it’s clear he feels there was a greater ambition to the music — and a willingness to step away from the kind of songs that radio embraced from Rolling Papers.
“I think the music is just really, really organic,” Khalifa says. “I’ve had ways of working with my home producer, my in-house guys, and making songs that people respect and love worldwide, but it’s not really like a typical single or a typical hit record. I think it’s just great music.
“I think that’s what we got really focused on with this record, just making the best songs and not trying to figure out what people are going to react to or what we think they’re going to like or what’s the next best idea. We just made a batch of great songs that sound, sonically, like they’re all put together great, but they’re not too huge and they’re not too crazy to the point where people don’t understand it. “
O.N.I.F.C. feels like the logical next step in Khalifa’s development and ability to blend Hip Hop mentality with Pop melody. Tracks like “The Plan” (featuring Juicy J), “Let It Go” (featuring Akon) and “No Limit” are among the songs that feature sleek, synthesized melodies that flow around rapped vocals. The light beats that percolate underneath the music add to the smooth personality of the album.
Lyrically, Khalifa says while he wanted to retain the good-time feel of Rolling Papers, he also made room on the new album for more substantial thoughts.
“It elaborates as far as smoking, chillin’, partying and feeling good, but it’s also being aware and educating, saying some things with the time that I have here,” he says. “It’s not just the songs that people will sing (along with), but it’s great music. They can sing the song and it means something.”
“It’s definitely still fun and lighthearted, but I would say the more raw, uncapped side came out on this album,” Khalifa continues. “Like it’s that same energy I had when I first got attention. That’s what I was putting into this, other than just trying to show the best songs I could write, the best melodies I could (write) and the songs that made the most sense and just represent me.”
Khalifa, who recently tweeted that his next album, Blacc Hollywood, will be released later this year, may have just recently made his presence felt nationally with Rolling Papers, but he has been on the music industry radar for a while longer.
Born Cameron Jibril Thomaz in 1987, the Pittsburgh-based rapper released Show and Prove in 2006 on indie label Rostrum Records. This paved the way for him to sign with Warner Bros. Records, a deal that produced “Say Yeah,” a single that hit No. 20 on Billboard magazine’s Hot Rap Tracks chart. But a full-length album was never released and, after leaving Warner Bros. in July 2009, Khalifa returned to Rostrum Records.
There, he collaborated with New Orleans rapper Curren$y on a 2009 mixtape, How Fly, followed by his own mixtape, Burn After Rolling, and then his second indie album, Deal or No Deal, in short order.
By that time, a buzz was building in Hip Hop circles. Khalifa was named one of the genre’s top newcomers in 2010 by XXL magazine and The Source. And he also signed a new major-label deal, this time with Atlantic Records. This set the stage for a career lift-off that came with the fall 2010 release of the single, “Black and Yellow,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and greased the wheels for the release in March 2011 of Rolling Papers.
In the lead-up to O.N.I.F.C. (which stands for “Only Nigger in First Class”), there were a couple of minor controversies. Khalifa sparked debate online with a cover photo for the album in which he took on a decidedly ’60s retro look that drew comparisons to guitar great Jimi Hendrix. Khalifa says he likes what the photo represents.
“The cover, it was just about personal expression and freedom,” he says. “I’m a pretty wild guy, so it’s about your inner strength and letting that out and letting that be free and being bold and being different.”
“And with the comparison to Jimi, I’m just lucky enough to look like him,” he continues. “He was a pretty trippy dude, just into mind elevation and not even having a box instead of thinking outside of the box. And I kind of embody those same things, so people put me in the same bracket, which I think is super cool, but I don’t do it on purpose.”
There were also reports that Atlantic Records wanted Khalifa to write some songs for O.N.I.F.C. that would be better suited for radio. Khalifa says he and the label came to an understanding on that front.
“That was just a phase we went through. It was brief,” he says. “It was getting them to understand the type of record I wanted to represent me. And they were just doing their job by trying to give me the best record that they felt would take the project to the next level. So, you know, in agreeing to disagree we came to a great point and that’s where we’re at now.”
WIZ KHALIFA performs at Riverbend Music Center on Aug. 11 with the “Under the Influence of Music Tour,” also featuring A$AP Rocky, B.o.B., Joey Bada$$ and others. More info: riverbend.org.