I officially had my first “Looks like I really am getting old” private conversation with myself. It happened Sunday night, in the after glow of Fiesta. I was at the Wiz Khalifa show at the Bowl, the place close to full with cannabis-inclined older teens and twentysomethings. Loud, redundant, energized beats filled the air, the bass visibly pulsating through a cartoonishly thick haze of marijuana smoke. Young Wiz was close to having his shirt completely off, peacocking his way across the stage with aggressive purpose, tattoos glistening with sweat, microphone in hand. Half speaking, half singing, “Party all day! Party all night!”
On my feet and moving slowly to the music, I couldn’t argue with his message but I also couldn’t stand it. The watered-down, intellectually devoid, clearly market-driven version of bubblegum pop hip-hop Wiz and company were selling was just too much for me to stomach. “This is awful,” I thought to myself in a queer sort of disbelief just before the aforementioned realization, “Shit, that’s what old people sound like. Am I old?!?!”
To be certain, Wiz Khalifa is a thing. He has a handful of Grammy nominations to his name, multiple number 1 hits on the Billboard charts, mixed tapes that people lust after, and a crazy amount of street cred with folks who fancy smoking, toking, and vaporizing the Devil’s Lettuce on a daily basis. Khalifa even has a strain of marijuana named after him, the Khalifa Kush, and a chart-topping song “KK” about smoking it. In fact, most of his songs — chart topping or otherwise — sing the praise of pot at some point. My medical marijuana dispensary even let me know Wiz was in town this week with an email the morning of the show offering discounts if you used the “Khalifa” promo code. Like I said, he is a thing.
However, getting back to the show, if that “thing” is at all indicative of the future of music as a soul-stirring art form, well, we are in trouble. Big trouble. My apologies to Wiz and the Taylor Gang crew, but man, I don’t really get it. Sure he brings energy and occasionally catchy beats and crowd-surfing and the rad handle-less Segway skateboard antics, but the music itself falls short of being even remotely creative or inspirational or important. And, though maybe it is my age talking again, inspirational and important is what I look for from an artist.
Wiz Khalifa at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Thousands pack the Bowl for Wiz Khalifa (August 9, 2015)
Seeing Wiz hit a joint from the crowd and later pass a half-finished spliff back into the audience was a cool parlor trick, one that made the 17-year-old in me giddy with outlaw excitement. But when I started actually listening to your lyrics and paying attention to the arrangements on offer, things got pedestrian and predictable pretty fast. Songs like “Work Hard, Play Hard” and “Young, Wild, and Free” and “We Dem Boyz” and “Stayin‘ Out All Night” are grotesquely similar sounding all inspired by the same have fun, don’t sleep, party hard ethos. And while the through line of this work does indeed get a bit tiresome — after all, you can’t actually party all the time. I have tried and it leads to a very dark and unhealthy place — the real problem with Khalifa’s music is how it reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. From the specific language used to the rhymes and word-play to the excessively repeated/shouted chorus’, his work never once tries to rise above mediocrity let alone a sixth grade reading level. It doesn’t even feign an effort. Even worse, the kids just plain love it.
Interestingly, the morning after Wiz’s Bowl performance, I ran into an employee of the venue. (I live next door and it is not uncommon for me to get informal de-briefings on the after-show shenanigans of artists.) The guy was impressed by how rowdy and generally obnoxious and litter-prone Khalifa’s fans were but was more impressed by the Wiz himself and his crew. “It’s pretty clear everything they did on stage was an act,” said the man after hanging out after the show for several hours. “[Wiz] is more of a nerd than some pimp or party guy. Everybody in his band was great and super laid back. They were drinking a few beers and messing around on those weird Segways without handles. Nothing crazy or out of control. Just normal, down to earth people having some laughs after work.”