With a series of hits that bundled gangster rhymes, weed talk, pop hooks, and slick production, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania rapper Wiz Khalifa went from breakthrough single (“Black and Yellow”) to feature film star (Mac and Devin Go to High School) in the short span of two years. Along the way there were revered mixtapes, sports anthems, a friendship with West Coast legend Snoop Dogg, the proliferation of his crew referencing Taylor Gang or Die T-shirts, and a friendship with the late actor Paul Walker that inspired the massive hit “See You Again.”
A military brat, Khalifa, whose real name is Cameron Thomaz, was born in 1987 in Minot, North Dakota. After his parents divorced when he was three, he lived in various places and military bases around the world. His first attempt at committing lyrics to paper was around age nine, and at 12 he was already recording and producing his own records in his father’s Oklahoma studio. Settling in Pittsburgh during his high school years, Khalifa laid down the groundwork for a solo career and kept busy recording music in a local studio, I.D. Labs. He stood out among the studio’s regulars, prompting the I.D. Labs’ staff to offer him free beats and recording time, plus bringing him to the attention of Benjy Grinberg, a former executive assistant to L.A. Reid at Arista Records who had started up a new independent label, Rostrum Records. Signed to Rostrum, Khalifa built a buzz in Pittsburgh with a few singles, but he began to draw ears nationally during his senior year in high school when his first mixtape, Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania, dropped in early 2006. With the release of his independent full-length debut, Show and Prove, later that year, major publications featured profiles on the young rapper.
In summer 2007, Khalifa and Rostrum hopped on board with Warner and Khalifa cut his first major-label single, “Young’n on His Grind.” The follow-up, “Say Yeah,” climbed into the Top 20 of Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks that same year, but the relationship between Warner Bros. and Khalifa was taking a turn for the worse. Unable to come to an agreement on his debut album for the label, the rapper announced he was leaving Warner in 2009 and returning to Rostrum for the album Deal or No Deal.
The next year began with Khalifa appearing on the cover of XXL as one of the magazine’s Top Ten Freshmen, while The Source named him Rookie of the Year. In April, his Kush & Orange Juice mixtape had received enough press that Atlantic took notice, signing the artist that same month, and in September, his first single for the label, the Pittsburgh Steelers tribute and Stargate production “Black and Yellow,” appeared. As the NFL team progressed toward the playoffs, Khalifa’s track became their unofficial anthem, and when the Green Bay Packers emerged as the team’s opponent for the Super Bowl, Lil Wayne responded with the answer song “Green and Yellow.” Khalifa’s song topped the charts in February of 2011, while his first Atlantic set, Rolling Papers, debuted at number two on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart a month later. Also arriving that same year was a feature film with Snoop Dogg, Mac and Devin Go to High School, along with its accompanying soundtrack.
Two mixtapes, Taylor Allderdice and Still Blazin’, landed in 2012, and in early December his fourth album, O.N.I.F.C., was released, featuring a return appearance by production team Stargate, this time working with Benny Blanco on the album’s first single, “Work Hard, Play Hard.” Khalifa explained in interviews that the acronym title O.N.I.F.C. stood for “Only Nigga in First Class,” inspired by the album H.N.I.C. by Prodigy of Mobb Deep. Clean copies saw the abbreviation standing for “One Night in First Class.” In April 2013, he released his collaboration EP Live in Concert with Curren$y, which featured seven new songs. Shortly afterward, he announced details of a fifth studio album, entitled Blacc Hollywood, which was released in August of 2014. The mixtape 28 Grams — designed to act as a primer for the album — almost saw a delay when Khalifa was arrested for marijuana possession the day before its release that May. However, he was freed within a matter of hours and the mixtape’s online stream went ahead as planned.
During 2015, his contribution to the soundtrack for Furious 7 became one of the biggest hits of the year; a tribute to the actor Paul Walker, “See You Again,” reigned at number one for more than ten weeks (although not consecutively). The hit didn’t appear on the MC’s 2016 album, Khalifa, but it influenced the more serene and loose set of tracks, including the album’s lead single, “Bake Sale” with special guest Travis Scott. The album debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 albums chart, while later in the year Wiz debuted at number 26 with TGOD Mafia: Rude Awakening, a collaborative mixtape featuring Juicy J and TM88 and released by Atlantic. The rapper followed with a pair of notable soundtrack contributions in 2016 (“Sucker for Pain” from the movie Suicide Squad) and 2017 (“Gang Up” from The Fate of the Furious). Also in 2017, he delivered the single “Something New,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. ~ Cyril Cordor