When Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa released the song “Black and Yellow” two years ago, he and his team figured at most, it would be a regional hit. Instead, it ricocheted the artist to mainstream pop stardom.
Ever since, he's been walking a tightrope. Khalifa toured relentlessly for a couple years as an indie artist, building an army of fans he calls the Taylor Gang. The devotees were less than pleased when Rolling Papers, his debut studio album on Atlantic, was studded with bubblegum ditties. He became tabloid fodder when he began dating his now-pregnant fiancé, Amber Rose, and the ranks grumbled even louder when his style shifted from collegiate stoner to luxe jetsetter.
But Khalifa wrote an Tumblr note admitting Rolling Papers wasn't his best work and promised his sophomore album, O.N.I.F.C. (or, Only Nigga in First Class, due out in December), would be “for people who live like us and can relate.” We caught up with him before he plays tonight at Gibson Amphitheatre.
I heard you recently made eight songs in one day.
[Laughs] Yeahhh, I record a lot. Sometimes I just get really motivated and then I just keep going. If I have a lot of really great beats, I'll just spend some time in there and knock it out till I feel like I'm done.
Doesn't that schedule just get exhausting?
Nah, you just gotta do stuff to keep yourself motivated. I smoke a lot, so that helps me. And I always have my friends around, too, so we crack jokes and laugh and talk about other things, which translates into the music. It's just living it and making it real.
Regarding friends, you and Curren$y have become this “how-to” model for a generation of new rappers. How would you break down your strategy?
Man. I'd say it was just knowing which people to keep in my corner. I meet a lot of people and I'm cool with everybody. But I don't treat everybody … I can't do as much business with everybody, you know what I'm saying? There's just working relationships and then the people I really trust who are my friends. Keeping the separation between that, and then really living what I talk about and what I do. Not just saying what sounds cool. Even talking about something I want to achieve or want to get to. That's just me writing my goals down. It gives the fans something to look up to, because I always want to do bigger and better.
Being so young when you first started, you had to develop that business mentality.
Yeah, [I learned] by trial. And I learned a lot from the people I'm around. We all have different positions and roles, but at the end of the day, it's about the bigger picture. And it's bigger than just rapping and looking cool, it's about the brand and lifestyle and really getting people to think and carry themselves a certain way.
You have a willingness to be open and spread good energy instead of projecting this image of being really tough and too cool.
You get more freedom that way. You don't have to clear anything up in the end. Everybody knows exactly what they're getting.
Have you encountered specific challenges in a business where that mentality is not the norm?
Not at all. I understand my personality and how I differ from other people's personalities. The main thing is I don't want to become a victim of what's going on. I gotta be steps ahead of these people, so maybe I'm just masking something with my niceness. [laughs] Learning a whole lot and becoming way better than these people.
What's your primary motivation right now?
Making people feel better. I just like people being excited and having something to look forward to, something positive. No matter what's going on in your personal life, if you can separate that and still be able to find something you enjoy, that's what life's all about. Because everybody has a bad day, everybody gets pissed off or annoyed, but what keeps you going is important. And I'd like to be a part of what keeps people going.
Some people have commented on the political overtones of the title O.N.I.F.C.. Were you conscious of that?
Nah, I wasn't really thinking of too many people's opinions. I wasn't thinking about it being a mainstream album or commercial success, it's just what I felt like expressing, from the name to the cover to the songs to the videos. It just matters that I'm happy with it.
Speaking of the cover, was that your concept? How did you get to that final image?
[Laughs] It was definitely my idea to go there with it and make it happen from the start. And when I started making the music, I felt like the project was going to be different, so I wanted to really, really stand out. When I thought of the cover, I wanted to do a really good photo shoot with a lot of elements that you'd stop and stare at. We did a bunch of outfit changes, and when I picked that outfit, I knew that was gonna be the cover. It was just something I wanted to put out there to let people know, hey you can be yourself. Be free. Be what you believe in and put it out there. If you see me sittin' there in some tight leather pants and a fur coat and that makes you more comfortable with yourself, then cool.
How did your current fashion aesthetic develop?
Just what I was inspired by. That's what it always came from. When I first came out, from Pittsburgh, I hung out with the cool skater crowd, streetwear kids, stuff like that, so that's the majority of what I wore. That has its own swag. Then I really started to look into fashion and what makes an artist who they are, and how important it is to draw that line. That's what made it click in my head. I could dress like everybody I see, or I could really become me. I just found that comfortable zone.
What's your favorite piece of clothing you own right now?
My black leather motorcycle jacket. And my black hat.
How has knowing you're gonna be a dad started to change you?
It's made me way more responsible, because I'm a bit of a wild child. It made me calm down a BUNCH of notches. I still have a lot of fun, but I be chillin'.
What does that mean, calming down a bunch of notches?
Exactly what it sounds like. I ain't stopped smoking, though.