Careers in pop rarely end suddenly. When an artist stops having hits they pass into a state respectable semi-retirement. This can last for years, even decades. Eventually, they fall away from the public’s imagination entirely.
Wiz Khalifa was the first of a new breed of hip hop superstars. He had not grown up running with a street gang. Nor had he been shot 9 times. Khalifa didn’t have a political message. He was not from the East or West Coast. Wiz Khalifa was a weed-loving rapper from Pittsburg. A hardworking artist who, pushing his way up the bottom, had made it in America.
Following the release of breakthrough single, ‘Black and Yellow’ Khalifa became one of the wealthiest rappers of all time. As a platinum-selling superstar, he led a glamorous and luxurious life. His hold on superstardom was, however, far less firm than even he could have suspected.
What Does Khalifa Mean?
Wiz Khalifa was born Cameron Jibril Thomaz. “Khalifa” was a nickname given to Thomaz by a grandfather. “Khalifa is Arabic, it means successor, leader, shining light,” he once told Forbes. “My granddad is Muslim and he gave me that name… ‘Wiz’ just came from me being the youngest guy around everybody. I was pretty good at anything I tried to do, so they called me a young wiz.”
A New Breed of Hip Hop Superstar
Khalifa’s mission was to spread his message and have an impact on people’s lives. He broke through to a mainstream audience in 2011 with ‘Black and Yellow’. The single was a remarkable mix of pop and hip hop. 2010 had seen a number of pop rap collaborations capture the public’s imagination. Snoop Dog made a guest appearance Katy Perry‘s chart-topping, ‘California Gurls.’ Bruno Mars paired up with rapper B.O.B. for Number One hit, ‘Nothin on You.’ Ke$ha’s had also dominated the airwaves with rap inspired sing-talk singles, ‘Tik Tok’ and ‘We R Who We R‘.
Khalifa’s ‘Black and Yellow’ was different. Rap and pop were not just operating side by side. They were working in harmony. The combination of a weed-loving hip hop personality and pop’s behind-the-scenes hitmakers was an unexpected and instant success.
Cameron Jibril Thomaz was born in Minot North Dakota in 1987. His childhood was rootless. The son of a military man, he moved between air force bases across Japan, Germany and the UK and the US. His parents divorced when he was 3. With both taking joint custody, he also began moving between homes.
Cameron started writing lyrics at 9. By 14 he was recording them. “I started rapping so I could fit in,” Khalifa later informed The Washington Post, “and then I got kind of good at it. When I was, like, 14, I told my dad what I wanted to do, and he bought me some equipment. Then I just made it happen.”
Khalifa’s father, Laurence Thomaz encouraged his son on one condition. If Khalifa’s career had not taken off within a year of finishing high school, he would try college. Laurence did not care whether or not Khalifa became was famous. He simply wanted him to be self-sufficient.
The Leadup to ‘Black and Yellow’
While in Pittsburgh Khalifa’s music came to the attention of local producers at the city’s I.D. Labs recording studios. He signed to Arista Records sublabel, Rostrum Records in 2005. Khalifa then released debut mixtape, Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania during his final year of high school. This release was followed by debut album Show and Prove in 2006. Wiz then signed to Warner Records in 2007 to release major label debut single, ‘Young ‘n on His Grind.’ Next came, ‘Say Yeah.’ The single catapulted Wiz into the US rap charts’ Top 20.
Due to creative tensions, Khalifa left Warner in 2009. Rejoining Rostrum he released Deal or No Deal. By this time he had built a massive following live. In 2010 his career took off. His Kush & Orange Juice mixtape, released for free online, was a viral hit. (The hashtag #kushandorangejuice became the biggest trending topic on Twitter and the search term “Kush and Orange Juice download” ranked first on Google’s Hot Search Trends the day of its release).
The success of Kush & Orange Juice alongside the massive following Khalifa had created online gained the attention of major-label Atlantic. And so he signed another label deal. In September that same year came, ‘Black and Yellow.’ It was the 23-year-old rapper’s breakthrough hit.
Stargate’s Role In Writing ‘Black and Yellow’
“A major label can always make it bigger,” Wiz told the Washington Post in 2011,” [they] put more dollars behind it, and in turn, make me more money… I pick my singles, I pick my packaging, I pick what I’m gonna wear, say what the f**k I wanna say. I’m gonna do what I wanna do. And it’s not even a rebellion type of thing. They’re like, ‘Do what you want to do!’ Because they see I’ve built that trust up.”
The necessity of hit songwriters was part and parcel with doing business with a major label. Sometimes they co-create material. At others the act more as quality control, mechanism. In short, they are extra assurance that the artist’s song is going to be a hit. For ‘Black and Yellow’ Wiz worked with production duo Stargate. After their early success with Neyo and later Rihanna, these two Norwegian hitmakers were highly sought after behind the scenes.
“It was just a good mixture.” Khalifa told MTV News. “When we got in the studio, I think the first day in the studio with them I did two songs and a hook. They kept throwing me beats and I kept knocking out hooks and verses over them. So I think just the vibe was there. The music that we were making is real potent. It was like, ‘We got to do it [and collaborate].”
Stargate’s Tor Erik Hermansen would later share that the song was the duo’s first serious rap collaboration. “We’ve always loved hip-hop,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “but because some of our early stuff was more melodic, we were never given the chance.” Presented with the song’s synth line, Wiz took to ‘Black and Yellow’ straight away.
What Was ‘Black and Yellow’ About?
As many songs do, ‘Black and Yellow’ would go on to live a life of its own separate to the artist who produced it. Following its release, single quickly became the unofficial theme song for Khalifa’s local football team the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2011 Super Bowl lead-up matches. In fact, all of Pittsburg’s prominent sports teams – the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates – wore a combination of black and gold. All would adopt Khalifa’s song. It was soon in use by black and yellow coloured sports teams across the world.
Khalifa had written the song’s lyrics about Pittsburg though he later revealed to HipHop DX he did not have a particular sports team in mind. It was, in fact, about his car. Wiz drove a Dodge Challenger. Which, out of civic pride, he had purchased painted in the city’s black and yellow colours.
What Made Wiz Khalifia Stand Out?
Being from the Midwest, Khalifa spoke to a massive audience of middle American teens. “We’re a little bit more country, more Midwest in general,” he shared with the Washington Post. “We have a different way about us when it comes down to the music. The beats are really melodic and musical, but they’re still really heavy. They just ride out, almost like down South mixed with West Coast.”
“I always feel like that gave me an advantage,” he also informed told Forbes. “When you’re from the East Coast or you’re from the South, people expect you to sound a certain way. So if you don’t sound that way, people won’t label you as that type of artist. For me, I had a whole new lane to create for myself being from Pittsburgh and being a Midwest artist.”
Visually, he was striking. Head to toe, Khalifa was covered in tattoos. From the age of 16, he knew he wanted this to be the case. Each addition has been planned and plotted out. As a whole, Khalifa asserted, the mosaic of these tattoos would tell his story.
Wiz Khalifa Made the Internet Work for Him
Khalifa understood social media. At a time when an older generation of artists was swearing off Facebook and complaining about illegal downloads, Khalifa embraced the new technology of his era. He released free mixtapes for his fans to download and created behind-the-scenes content for free. Khalifa embraced the power of the internet. Wiz made it work for him.
“The internet is a real vital tool in promoting and getting my music out there,” an up and coming Khalifa informed music blog The Konclusion in 2010. “Different stuff works for different people, but just the type of artist that I am, and how in touch with my fans I am, the internet just helps, it’s a catalyst for all that.”
Prior to the release of his debut album Khalifa had 3,000,000 friends on Facebook and over a million Twitter followers. His music video for ‘Black & Yellow’ hit an astonishing 30 million views on YouTube shortly after its release. (2015 single ‘See You Again’ has since been streamed on Youtube more than 4 billion times).
It’s All In Merchandise
‘Black and Yellow’ opened the door for a new generation of rappers. Not only could they be credible hip hop acts but millionaire superstars as well. Khalifa was at the forefront of a new generational attitude toward fame.
He had grown up knowing hip hop was a big and lucrative business. To be an MC was no longer an act of rebellion. His parents had supported him at every step. Even though art lay at the heart of it, success was no longer a dirty word. Fame was not a matter of selling out. It was an artist’s just reward.
“Just made a million,” Khalifa raps on ‘Black and Yellow,’ “got another million on my schedule.” He was not kidding. Despite living up to his public image as a chain-smoking stoner, Wiz was a hardworking and ambitious artist. Today, Wiz Khalifa is estimated to have amassed a fortune of 45 million dollars.
Khalifa paved the way to an era dominated by artist merchandising. He could sell merchandise better than other rap act. While most hip-hop acts int the early 2010s were grossing between $2 to $3 of merchandising per head per show, Khalifa was taking between $5 and $15. His highly sought after black-and-yellow hoodie (weed concealing zipper pocket) moved for $60. Each show he sold between $150 and $200 Wiz Khalifa branded rolling papers. (At the asking price of $10 each). For $42, fans could lay their hands on a limited edition “420 Kit” complete with papers, a t-shirt, a herb grinder and baggie. Oh and of course throw in around 700 t-shirts. Times these figures by the thousands who attended his sold-out tours. It added up.
The First Class Lifestyle
Wiz Khalifa’s early appeal was not, as it later became, his lifestyle. It was something more universally appealing. Wiz was a simple hard-working American who took life one day at a time. “Every day is new,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It’s just a new day. I look at six hours at a time.” Of course, unlike your average All-American, Khalifa noted his working day in 2012 might just end with a private plane trip to Dubai.
His second album dealt with this luxurious lifestyle which accompanied fame. “It’s different, for real,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012, “and I love it. 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 jewellery has changed. It all goes together.”
Khalifa was being honest. He had changed. The rapper was no longer living the lifestyle of his fans. He had become part of the pop machine.
Wiz Khalifa Loves Weed
Forbes once declared Wiz Khalifa to be the artist most associated with marijuana since Bob Marley. Khalifa was proud of his lifestyle. Fans wanted to share in on it.
“Everybody smokes weed,” he once told Forbes. “My music and my fan base is really built off of my lifestyle … and from older people to doctors, plenty of really successful people function off weed.”
Khalifa loved weed so much so that he smoked it every day. “I wake up at 5.30 am,” he told Mike Tyson on the former boxer champions personal podcast. “That’s usually when I’m smoking a joint.”
Why? Creative reasons. “Creatively I need to be at my most innocent and carefree,” he once told the NME. “Where I can be sensitive to my environment. I can accept colours and sounds and turn them into words. When I’m in situations like this, where there’s a lot going on, I still have to come up with a lot of ideas.”
Khalifa was pro-weed but anti-tobacco. “Stop smokin’ blunts,” he once urged his weed and tobacco mixing fans via his Instagram stories. “No blunts in my session or in the room with me.” Weed and tobacco? Not the same.
At one point Khalifa claimed to spend $10,000 a month on weed alone. A 2014 sponsorship from legalised marijuana traders footed the bill until 2015 when Khalifa founded Khalifa Kush Enterprises. Shortly after he launched his own legal strain high-quality marijuana known as Khalifa Kush.
Wiz Khalifa and Women
Unlike weed, Khalifa’s relationships with women were far less stable. He had several high profiles yet short-lived relationships. Wiz was most famously married to Amber Rose, former stripper and ex-partner of Kanye West, in 2014. The marriage lasted only a year though Khalifa has a close relationship with the pair’s son Sebastian. In 2018 he was rumoured to have dated Khloe Kardashian. The following year he was regularly seen in the company of fashion model Winnie Harlow. As of November 2020, he is believed to be dating model and blogger, Aimee Aguilar.
Man vs. Machine
Wiz Khalifa’s rise to fame and fall from it may ultimately be a tale of man versus machine. Machines allow us to remake the world in our own image. They give us power and allow us to transform ourselves into an ideal form. Rely on them too much though and there comes a time when the machines we control, start controlling us.
There was an ironic twist to Khalifa’s story too. He exploited new technology to push his way to the top. When he did the machinations of the music industry further elevated him to the loftiest heights of fame. Major record labels like social media tech giants have little lasting loyalty.
Khalifa did things his own way. He used technology to amplify his fame. Eventually, he became beholden to the machinery that brought it to him. “Throughout human history,” the mentor Morpheus shares with his student Neo in Holywood blockbuster The Matrix, “we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”
Khalifa was a working-class guy who loved weed. This made him so relatable he became famous for it. And once he was famous he changed into something which was, to the world outside at least, a far cry to the original Wiz Khalifa. He was the star of a teenage generation. His fame would not expand to the next. An ambitious generation of hip hop acts had beaten him to the punch using the path he had beaten down for them to do it with.
The Influence of ‘Black and Yellow’
The machinery of the music industry and social media boosted Khalfia’s fame and his formidable talent. Yet did Wiz Khalifa make a deal with the Devil? It seems that in the end, it was the machine that conquered the man. Though still living a life beyond the wildest dreams of his fans he no longer holds the title of rap’s superstar. Rap’s successor has become succeded.
In 2016 an up and comer named Travis Scott guest featured on Khalifa single ‘Bake Sale‘. Scott, who is pop’s reigning hip hop superstar at the time of writing, has taken many aspects of Khalifa’s persona as an artist further. Like Khalifa, Scott is master of merchandising. Khalifa stated jokingly in 2012 that he would make $100 million that year. In 2020 Travis Scott is estimated to have made $100 million from merchandising and brand partnerships.
Scott’s blockbuster album Astroworld was more creatively ambitious than Khlafia’s more modest approach to recording. Like Khalifa’s tumultuous high-profile romances, Scott has an on again off again relationship mega-celebrity Kylie Jenner. In terms of their art, Wiz and someone like Travis Scott might be worlds apart. In a commercial sense, they meet similar consumer demand. Scott is not alone in contesting Khalifa’s former crown with hip hop’s acts like Cardi B, along with their outsized personalities, tastes for luxury and command of social media, also pushed this humble boy from Pittsburg to the wayside.
The Fame Wiz Won With ‘Black and Yellow’ Didn’t Last
Following 2016’s ‘Sucker for Pain’ Wiz Khalifa’s career as a hitmaking singles artist fell away. His 2018 album Rolling Papers 2 still performed strongly. Released in July 2018 it hit Number Two in the US albums chart. The guest-appearance heavy 2020 EP The Saga of Wiz Khalifa reached Number 48.
Reflecting on his past, Khalifa was critical of the material form of his debut album. It was too poppy. “The album did great numbers, but creatively wasn’t my best work,” he shared. “I’m used to listening to my music all the time, critiquing it, and making it better. I didn’t really get a chance to do that with Rolling Papers.”
What Khalifa wanted had never aligned with the pop public. When finessed by hitmakers his music could top charts. This kind of success came the cost of his creative satisfaction. At heart, he wanted to be a legend, not a pop star. And it is this internal conflict which has taken him away from the role of massively appealing entertainer.
That and changing tastes. While a new generation of hip hop stars came to revere Khalifa many of their fans did not. The public is fast forgetting.
The machinations of the music industry feed on brilliant young rappers. Once the dream comes true and youth fades away they often adrift creatively. Khalifa’s most recent collaborations have been with other high profile acts. They have, however, failed to capture the public imagination. He recently left fans scratching their heads after a guest appearance on a single cashing in on the fame of TikTok influencer Dixe D’Amelio.
“When you start forcing things, you lose people,” Wiz Khalifa once stated to Complex Magazine. “I never want to do that because none of my favourite artists have ever done that to me. You know what’s right and you know what’s wrong, you know when you’re forcing it and when you’re just laying it down. I’m trying to do more laying it down than forcing it. That’s how you become legendary.”
Wiz Khalifa’s career started with an obsession for creating started with art. When he broke through to the world of pop his work became entertainment. From here he slipped to becoming merely a pop culture decoration. And while this may last several years, take Snoop Dog for example eventually he, like all other entertainers, will disappear.
In pop, you are only as good as your last hit. It has been a while since Wiz Khalifa had one. How quickly fame slips away. Khalifa was and remains a complex person. To the public at larger, however, he was a stoned rapper turned star. In his prime, he was, without question, hip hop’s biggest superstar. The unprecedented stardom was that it would notoriously short-lived. When he became too old to embody the generational challenges of the youth market, he was replaced by another rapper turned pop star more congenial to the times.
Khalifa Falls from the Clouds
“Up there in the clouds,” Khalifa rapped on Kush and Orange Juice’s ‘Waken Baken‘. “No one pulling me down. Smokin’, chillin’, up on top of the world.”
Still, his achievements were nothing short of remarkable. Wiz Khalifa was a self-made man. He came from nowhere to become a star. He worked hard and by age 23 become wealthy enough to live comfortably for the rest of his days. He succeeded through dedication and initiative. Even if public interest falls away he continues to elevate himself creatively. And while his successes may have faded and no immediate return to form seems imminent he was nonetheless the first of his own breed of superstar.
Khalifa may have been insulated from the fact by weed and wealth but by the release of his 2020 EP, he was no longer on top of the game. Creatively ambitious hip hop newcomers had arrived where rap and pop converged. They followed Khalfia’s tactics, using technology to amplify their music and message. While Khalifa may have towered over them in their youth one thing was now clear. Short of a drastic reinvention, he was outmoded. Others were more creative or controversial. Age 33 at the time of writing he has joined hero Snoop Dog as a venerable elder of the hip hop community.
‘Black and Yellow’ Gave Wiz Khalifa Everything He Wanted
His father made Khalifa promise he would give music 100 per cent of what he had. Wiz gave it. When the world responded he made the most of his opportunity. Well exceeding expectations, he was a millionaire at 23. By this measure, he has long been a success.
The rest of the world have reason to give thanks to giving as well. Wiz Khalifa uncovered the secret password, one which unlocked the door to fame and fortune. Once he opened that door others too could start pushing through. The only problem was some of those who followed pushed passed him. This may not be of great concern to Khalifa who, after all, never really wanted to be a pop superstar but a simple to be self-sufficient man, a good father and a humble hip hop legend.
‘Black Yellow’ Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1
Geniunely loved weed
Spoke to a generation
Later critical of the song
Other rappers pushed past him