Where it was once sacrilege, the act of selling out has become an almost natural evolution for a major rap star. When an artist signs to a major label it almost always involves an implicit compromise. The rapper is almost inevitably going to make some pop concessions. But Rolling Papers, the major debut of previously word-of-mouth campus favorite Wiz Khalifa, was an especially egregious sellout. It sounded like an album made by committee, or at least by an artist who desperately wanted to please a committee. (A committee of Sublime fans.) Though it sold well and produced a couple of major hits, much of his core audience was repelled. So much so that the Pittsburgh rapper recently apologized for the turn on his Tumblr: “The album did great numbers, but creatively wasn’t my best work.” That would be Kush & Orange Juice, the mixtape before that album that Wiz laughably claimed to have created a genre with in that same Tumblr post. He didn’t exactly do that, but he did put together a very solid combination of hook driven raps about marijuana and appropriately spacey, pan-regional beats.
It was probably the best collection of songs that could be wrung out of that formula, but Wiz returns to it anyway with Taylor Allderdice. The themes are the same: Wiz likes weed, Wiz has money. His hooks aren’t instantaneously infectious but they’ve never been — they tend to bury into brains and reveal their catchiness at a later date. This is Wiz’s greatest skill, because he’s never been an outstanding technical rapper. But he’s wise enough to not overreach either, finding a comfortable pocket in the production and then just crawling into it.
As you might imagine, this approach puts his success almost entirely in the hands of his producers. Long time in-housers Cardo and Big Jerm, freelancers like Jake One (50 Cent, De La Soul) and Harry Fraud (French Montana, Action Bronson) all deliver appropriately. Where Kush drew loosely on the wheeze of West Coast G-Funk, Allderdice’s producers take their cues from elsewhere, specifically golden age New York boom bap. They mine jazz/funk samples that Gang Starr or Black Sheep would’ve flipped twenty years ago (and, in the case of the Ramsey Lewis loop “Number 16,” did) and, following A$AP Rocky’s lead, the more aggressive sounds of Memphis. M-Town icon and recent Taylor Gang signee Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia shows up on several tracks, one of which is produced by blog darling and Triple 6 carpetbagger SpaceGhostPurrrp. Memphis adherent and radio giant Lex Luger also turns up for the bluesy “The Code,” doing a pretty outstanding job of folding his usual energy into the more subdued Wiz model.
But these influences are nearly all red herrings. Be it Memphis or Manhattan, sound bank or sample, most of these tracks tend to land at the same place: weed fog etherealism. This is exactly where Wiz’s fans want him to be but one can’t help but wonder how much of the positive response to Taylor Allderdice is simply a product of lowered expectations. Whatever, at least it’s not another Rolling Papers.