ATLANTA (AP) - With a blond streak running up his uncombed Afro, rapper Wiz Khalifa leans back in his chair seemingly without a care in the world, as the aroma of marijuana rises from his gray sweater.
This is a snapshot of rap’s newest sensation.
“Weed is just my thing,” says the 23-year-old, whose latest album, “Rolling Papers,” debuted this week at No. 2 on the album charts with more than 198,000 copies sold, putting him right behind Britney Spears.
“I smoke because that’s where my mind belongs. It’s better for me. I hear music clearer and differently. It makes my writing much more enjoyable. At the end of the day, I don’t depend on it. I’m just one of those people who like to be high all the time.”
Some say the 6-foot-4 Khalifa, who skyrocketed up the charts with his omnipresent hit “Black and Yellow,” reminds them of a younger version of Snoop Dogg, a rapper he idolizes. They’re both tall and lanky; they also have a fondness for marijuana with carefree attitudes. The older rapper has taken Khalifa under his wing, and they’ve even recorded together.
“He’s sort of taken some inspiration from Snoop as this lovable pothead kind of dude,” says Elliott Wilson, founder of the hip-hop website RapRadar.com. “He gives off good energy. He laughs a lot and cackles on the track. He seems like a personable dude. He’s already built his core audience and now he’s trying to reach a different audience, too _ and bring them into the party.”
Khalifa was born in North Dakota and grew up as a military kid, living in different countries from Japan to Germany before putting down his roots in the blue-collar city of Pittsburgh.
Khalifa says living in different countries gave him a broader perspective of the world’s various cultures.
“It helped me (learn) how to deal with different people, being able to interact with other kids,” he says. “Just having those different walks of life, from living on base then in the city and real world. It gives you a better understanding of how people’s minds work.”
Pittsburgh is where Khalifa honed his creativity as a songwriter, realizing his ability to soundly mesh rap and singing together.
“I feel like the best way to stay in somebody’s head is singing,” he says. “Music is instruments. I just really pulled from what’s inside the music and (that’s how I) find my melodies.”
Khalifa built a strong grass-roots fan base through a series of mixtapes, earning him a deal with Warner Bros. in 2007, with his debut song, “Say Yeah,” which reached No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks. But he and the label parted ways two years later after his album was delayed on several occasions.
But Khalifa bounced back soon after by bolstering his name through Twitter. He released his mixtape “Kush & Orange Juice” to download for free, creating a buzz that became the No. 1 trending topic the entire day on the social networking site. That led him into a new deal with Atlantic Records.
“He was one of the early people to take advantage of that wave,” says DJ Drama, who’s known for his compilation of mixtapes. “I came up in an era where you sent boatloads of CDs to stores. But for him, Wiz made his own campaign going that direction.”
With a major label backing him, Khalifa knew how to handle his business this time around. He figured it would only be a matter of time before his career would take off, but he didn’t anticipate it would be because of “Black and Yellow,” which paid homage to his hometown team _ the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
He wasn’t the only one surprised by the outcome.
“We all felt good about the record. But I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be the No. 1 record,” says Tor Erik Hermansen of the hit-making Norwegian production duo Stargate, who produced the song. “We were all pleasantly surprised.”
The song thrived with its catchy hook, becoming last year’s phenomenon that influenced some of rap’s elite, from Lil Wayne to Snoop Dogg, to remix the song and salute their favorite team.
For Khalifa, the release of “Black and Yellow” came at a perfect time when the Steelers made a run toward Super Bowl XLV. Even though his favorite team lost in the championship game to the Green Bay Packers, the success of the song still made him fell like a winner.
“People are really paying attention to it,” he says. “There’s this version and that version. It helped out a lot to catch people up really fast who were like, `Who is Wiz Khalifa?’”
If there’s any doubt whether Khalifa can surpass the one-hit wonder status, look no further than his futuristic pop-sounding “No Sleep.” It has already soared to No. 1 on the iTunes top 10 list. And his single “Roll Up” reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs.
“From the moment he walks in, you know he’s a star,” says Erik Hermansen, who also produced “Roll Up.” “That’s the X-factor you can’t really teach somebody. It comes from the artist. He’s got that.”
Khalifa doesn’t expect the hits to stop anytime soon.
“It’s like motivation to do more and just like stay level-headed,” he says, “stay chillin’.” … But at the same time let people know how good I am.”
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