Commercial success in the music industry is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, you’ve made it — hundreds of thousands, even millions of fans are now awaiting your highly anticipated next release. On the other, those very anticipations can have a crippling effect, as all of a sudden your art is created with other people’s expectations in mind rather than your own.
This is the all-too-familiar problem Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa finds himself battling on his sophomore major label release O.N.I.F.C. [Only Nigga in First Class], out Tuesday from Atlantic Records. After generating local interest — which eventually became national — with a series of mixtapes and independent releases, Khalifa rocketed to superstardom with the chart-topping Steelers anthem “Black and Yellow,” followed closely by his critically and commercially successful debut album Rolling Papers.
A motion picture role alongside Snoop Dogg followed, and now the 25-year-old MC must produce another hit on par with “Black and Yellow” in order to maintain his newfound popularity and relevance.
His first attempt is with O.N.I.F.C.’s lead single “Work Hard, Play Hard,” another Pittsburgh-centric anthem that does much to mimic his breakthrough hit. The production is massive and grandiose, with a steel mill drum pattern pounding over an ominous single-note bass line. The verse mostly consists of Khalifa bragging about how rich he is, while the chorus strives for something a little more profound: “The quicker you here, the faster you go / That’s why where I come from the only thing we know is / Work hard, play hard.”
The song works well enough, but ultimately lacks the intangible energy captured in “Black and Yellow” and the rest of Rolling Papers. The same can be said for O.N.I.F.C. as a whole; the production and guest appearances are on the money, but Khalifa lacks anything new to say as well as a new way to say it.
About 90 percent of the lyrics concern either the rapper’s love of smoking weed or his love of his own money. At 17 tracks and more than 73 minutes long, the album quickly begins to drag, with tracks like “It’s Nothin” and “Initiation” adding nothing new or interesting to the sonic portraiture.
A notable exception is “The Bluff,” featuring a guest appearance by NYC rapper Cam’ron. The song features a delicate, ethereal production that glides hazily over a slow jam drum pattern as the MC’s trade off verses. It’s about as close to “sensitive” as a song that revolves entirely around marijuana and hundred-dollar bills can get.
Two of the album’s best tracks are reserved for the very end. “Remember You” features a haunting chorus sung by alternative neo-soul singer the Weeknd, while “Medicated” closes the album out with introspective, reminiscing lyrics that finally reach beyond the shallowness that pervades the rest of the disc.
The delivery and production on O.N.I.F.C. reveal an artist who has just hit the big time and is trying to make it last. In order to do so, Khalifa would be wise to find more substantive subject matter to rap about the next time around.