“Oh yeah, I didn’t take my shot yet,” Wiz Khalifa admits to his posse, a crew he lovingly refers to as “the Taylor Gang,” backstage at a 25,000-plus-seat ampitheater outside Chicago. He joins his red Solo cup in a circle toast with them, letting out what can only be described as a tribal war chant doused in ecstasy. “AYEEEE!”
One can’t fault Khalifa (born Cameron Jibril Thomaz) for feeling anything short of incredible. In the two years since the weed-loving rapper from Pittsburgh broke out with his hometown-touting anthem “Black and Yellow,” the lanky, fully tattooed artist has gone from a buzzworthy blog act to a platinum-seller who has starred in a film with Snoop Dogg, dropped a guest verse in Maroon 5’s chart-topping song “Payphone” and gotten engaged to the supermodel Amber Rose. Later this month, he’s set to drop O.N.I.F.C. – the follow-up to last year’s successful (if not a bit overtly poppy) debut, Rolling Papers – which is highlighted by the debut single “Work Hard, Play Hard.”
Rolling Stone sat down with the rapper to discuss his rapid ascent in the hip-hop game, O.N.I.F.C. and life as an engaged man.
It’s been quite the two years since “Black and Yellow” dropped.
(laughs) A lot of shit’s happened.
Describe these past two years.
It’s, like, just looking back on it, a lot has happened. So it just gives me things to look forward to in the future. And not just that – I’ve just been so tunnel-vision, you know what I mean? I don’t really let it get to me or overwhelm me or anything like that. I feel like I’m put here to be in a big position so I’m just trying to just fulfill that, you know what I mean?
With tunnel vision, is it possible to look at the big picture?
Nah. Every day is new. It’s just a new day. I look at six hours at a time.
Your life is, well, a bit regimented, no?
It’s no regiment ’cause I could end up on a private jet to Dubai on Saturday. It’s a good thing because I do a lot of work. I’m always hustling. I’m never chilling and I’m never just sitting back and enjoying it too much. I’ve got a studio bus with me so this whole time, every day, I’m knocking out verses and doing free stuff. I’m doing stuff for my rap homies; I’m doing stuff for my fans. I feed that part so, just in turn, just naturally, the way the universe works, I get a lot of shit done.
Are you able to knock out your features on your bus?
Hell yeah! I just did three today. And I just listened to one of my artist’s mixtapes, Tuki [Carter]. His tape’s about to be crazy.
What were your initial thoughts when approached to do the feature on “Payphone”? It seemed out-of-the-box for you, so I was curious about what led to your decision to lend your talents to the track?
Keep it as natural as possible. The band is great so I didn’t want to fuck up.
You’ve done countless tours by yourself. Now you’re on tour with Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller and other hot up-and-coming rappers. Does it have a different vibe as opposed to flying solo?
It’s just, like, I always try to get to the next step and the next level. The point that this tour is on: the production is big, the lineup is big, the kids are the biggest crowd that we’ve pulled. Naturally, I’m like, “Yo man, I’ve just gotta be the best that I’ve ever been at this point right now.” So that’s mainly what it is.
You travel with your “Taylor Gang” family – guys like Chevy Woods. Is it easier to deal with the negative aspects of touring with such a tight-knit crew always surrounding you?
Yeah, absolutely, because everybody contributes. I would be lying to make it seem like it’s just me all the time. Just the conversations that we have; the jokes that we crack. The shit that’s relevant to us, that’s what I put into my music. Of course, Sledgren makes beats. We got my man R&B Justice over here who really contributes to the sound and everything. If you’re not really seeing the day-to-day lifestyle stuff, it’s hard for us in our situation and who we rock. It’s hard to make the music be what it is.
How is touring life now that you’re engaged to the supermodel – and Kanye West‘s ex-fling – Amber Rose?
I love it, man. It’s really structured and it’s good because God puts everything in place how it’s supposed to be. And I would just be really, really retarded not to take those things. I love my wife. We FaceTime and we talk on the phone and she travels to come see me when she can. But she works as well. But we see each other a lot more than people would think, though, because we make it happen and we love each other so much.
In February, you posted a lengthy letter to your fans addressing the fact that perhaps Rolling Papers was too poppy and didn’t necessarily show off your true talents as an MC.
I’m a different type of dude. I critique myself way harder than anybody else could critique me. Whether people know it or not, when I go in the booth or when I pick my beats or with my artwork, everything is really detailed and I get down into it. I know what went into making that album and I know what went into making my other projects, so I know where I could have went a little stronger or where I could have done what I felt was more natural. But in time and through the process, you gotta learn and you gotta do different things. If I wouldn’t have learned that stuff early, then it probably would have taken me later in my career to try it out. I take it as a blessing. My cousin kind of put it to me the best earlier today. He was like, on Rolling Papers, I was more or less trying to show my skills, what I could do. Versatility. Everybody was like, “You’re a weed rapper.” I was like, “OK, I can show them different stuff.” Now on this album, it’s just like, whatever.
What sound were you going for with your second studio effort, O.N.I.F.C.?
I just wanted to keep it wide open and not do anything forced or anything that took too much thought, but just go as natural as possible. I really keyed in on my influences that made me wanna rap and do music. And I just try to recreate those feelings. And at the end of it, when I listen to it, and really just listen to the effortlessness, it reminds me of some of my older stuff. Because that was stuff that I was doing to really just challenge myself and to better myself. And in turn, the world is seeing it as this art and all this, that and the other thing. Really, it starts in here (points to heart). So that’s where I really took it back to. And on the album, it’s really musical but it’s not, like, over-creative. I’m not trying to push anything on anybody. There’s a lot of songs that are less obvious hits but they’re gonna stick with you and you’re gonna love them and in time they’re gonna be big songs because they have no choice but to [be]. I think that’s what music needs. That’s what I grew up on and that’s what we trying to bring.
O.N.I.F.C. stands for “Only Nigga in First Class.” What’s the significance behind that?
At the end of the day, “Only Nigga In First Class” is to show you the rawness that you gonna get with the album, the real edginess. But it also speaks to the fact of where I come from, as far as I’ve been working really, really hard, to maintain the point that I’m at, the people that I’m at, the crowd of people. It’s more like a first-class living. I really am sometimes the only black person in first class, too. So it’s, like, really real. It’s crazy but it’s cool. It’s weird because when I first started getting that assigned seat, when it became, like, “Oh, he’s gonna be up here,” first people looked at me really funny.
Did discovering this elevation among the societal ranks translate to your music?
Musically, I started really approaching it like, “Yo. Boom. I’m here!” Now it’s like, “Welcome, Mr. Sir. How are you doing?” It’s different, for real, and I love it. It’s cool. I’ve learned how to blend. That’s what it’s about, too: me gaining knowledge. My style has changed a lot. I dress differently. My jewelry has changed. It all goes together. O.N.I.F.C.