Stargate’s influence on urban radio has to be one of the strangest byproducts of our globalized, hyper-professional music industry. Beyoncé‘s “Irreplaceable,” Ne-Yo’s “Closer,” roughly half of Rihanna’s big hits: It’s funny to think how determinately recent black pop has been shaped by a pair of middle-aged Norwegian suburbanites. But it wasn’t until Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” surged to the top of the charts in the run-up to the Super Bowl that the production duo was able to boast a hip-hop song to match the success of their pop and R&B confections. (They’re also responsible for two of Rolling Papers‘s slickest slow jams: “Wake Up,” and the current single, “Roll Up.”)
On one level, Khalifa and Stargate make sense as collaborators. Before “Black and Yellow” blew up, Khalifa was best known for a pair of Johnny Juliano-produced singles, “Say Yeah” and “Make It Hot,” both of which used high-energy beats drawn from electronic dance music to supplement the rapper’s languid flow. But they also help to explain the sense, tricky to place but present from the first track on Rolling Papers, that something is a little off (spoiler: Nothing on the album is even half as good as “Black and Yellow”).
After all, Khalifa made it this far in his career without any superstar friends. He’s been showing up on rookie-of-the-year lists since 2006. He took his untimely bounce from Warner Bros. in stride and continued building his fanbase through a series of well-regarded mixtapes and independently released albums. In a rap scene dominated by superstars with well-defined personas (prodigal beat savant Kanye West, space-case outlaw Lil Wayne, introverted boy-next-door Drake, partially reformed bad-boy Eminem, schizo-Barbie Nicki Minaj, self-styled kingpin Rock Ross), Khalifa is refreshingly low-concept. What we know about Khalifa is that he likes to drink; he’s fond of, if not always successful with, the ladies; and, of course, he’s an unrepentant weed fiend. Rolling Papers doesn’t add any new depth to that character sketch. On the one hand, that keeps Khalifa relatable; on the other, the people to whom it keeps him relatable are themselves pretty boring and not the type I’d want to hear talking about themselves for an hour. The verses on Rolling Papers are one-dimensional, which would be fine if they were elevated by the wordplay or humor that made Khalifa’s Kush & Orange Juice mixtape so enjoyable.
Never an especially technical rapper, Khalifa doesn’t take his game up on Rolling Papers; in fact, he seems to regress to the tepid sing-song rapping that the music demands. Even popular rappers like Drake and B.O.B. go harder than this. Meanwhile, Khalifa’s lyrics rarely rise above the literal: “Get Your Shit” instructs an ex to get gone (though based on the crudely misogynist verses, she’s probably better off), while “On My Level” contains some unimpressive bragging about Khalifa’s ability to consume huge quantities of booze and pot, plus a joke about Twitter. Elsewhere, Khalifa makes it rain a lot.
As a whole, the verses on Rolling Papers are so boring that I’m not convinced that even Khalifa finds them interesting. They seem to exist solely to fill space between the hooks, which are sung, tolerably, by Khalifa himself. There’s something admirable about having Khalifa carry the album’s choruses instead of relying on samples or guest spots from R&B divas. Or at least there would be if Khalifa ever rose above bland competence as a vocalist. Ditto the album’s low-wattage guest list: Only Too Short, Curren$y, and Chevy Woods turn in cameos. In theory, a pop-rap album where a single performer actually does his best to hold the audience’s attention without a glut of distractions is a great idea. But for such an album to work, the lead role would have to go to someone with loads more charisma than Khalifa.
But since the leading man has made the bizarre decision to save his good verses for his free mixtapes (I guess that’s some kind of fan service), the best tracks on Rolling Papers stand out mostly on the strength of their production. “Rooftops” is a quirky slow jam anchored by piano and glitchy synths, which also benefits from Curren$y’s presence; he may not kill his verse, but unlike Khalifa, he sounds like he’s conscious. “The Race” is a dark, spacious tune that actually boasts a memorable melody in the chorus, which is pretty much the only thing distinguishing it from the surplus of dark, spacious, synth-driven tracks that weigh down the middle portion of the album. The average track on Rolling Papers sounds slick and expensive, prompting me to wonder exactly how much more this clunker of a crossover attempt cost to produce than any of Khalifa’s vastly superior mixtapes. I know for a fact that those Norwegians don’t work for free.