This article appears in this Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post.
A working-class bowling alley on Route 1 in College Park isn’t the first place you’d expect to find hip-hop’s newest superstar hanging out on a Friday night, but here he is, chilling over by the gumball machines, making faces at the camera phones snap-snap-snapping all around him.
Don’t harsh his mellow, kids. This is Wiz Khalifa, a 23-year-old rapper whose affable rhymes about weed, smoking weed and smoking even more weed have landed him on the March cover of Rolling Stone. His inescapable hit single “Black and Yellow” probably helped get him there, too — a Billboard-topping ode to his home town of Pittsburgh that became the Steelers’ de facto theme song during their campaign for the Super Bowl.
“I don’t understand why everybody thought I was going to kill myself when they lost,” Khalifa says, as laidback as you’d expect. “It’s not that big a deal.”
But Khalifa is. Even at this hush-hush, invite-only meet-and-greet event promoting his forthcoming album, “Rolling Papers,” hosted by radio station WKYS, bowlers are abandoning their lanes to hover around the radio contest winners hovering around Khalifa. Overzealous frat dudes repeatedly try to snap a photo with the rapper and are repeatedly asked to scram. “Bro, I wonder where Amber is,” one bro says to his bro.
They’re referring to the Khalifa’s girlfriend, model and former Kanye West flame Amber Rose. Earlier in the day, she glides through the entrance of the Greenbelt Marriott wrapped around his arm.
From 20 yards away, her super-short, super-blond coif seems almost incandescent. He’s wearing blue jeans and a hoodie. After some kissy-faces, Khalifa’s manager pries the much-gossiped-about couple apart and sends him across the lobby for his third interview of the morning.
Three interviews before noon? For a stoner? Turns out, this is also not that big a deal. At a recent Grammy event in Los Angeles, Khalifa says he did 45 individual Q&A sessions over the course of two hours. “It was weird being interviewed over and over,” he says. “But I got used to that super quick. I think the weed makes it easier, honestly.”
And that’s what makes Khalifa such a walking, smoking contradiction — he’s a marijuana enthusiast with an unparalleled work ethic, a rapper who records, tours and courts the media with a very un-stonerlike tenacity.
“I don’t know, I automatically want to work and I automatically want to get stoned, too,” he says, trying to explain these conflicting motivations. “And getting stoned makes me want to work. Yeah, I’m a special case, man.”
From an industry perspective, he’s a special case, too — one that might map out how hip-hop stars are made in the years to come. Khalifa signed with Warner Bros. in 2006 but was kept in a holding pattern for three years before parting with the label in 2009. He made the most of his purgatory, however, releasing a series of wildly popular mix tapes, those unofficial releases that the record industry was trying to stamp out about five years ago. Over the years, the suits have changed their tune, recognizing mix tapes as the rap world’s most powerful promotional tool.
The proof? “Kush & Orange Juice,” the mix tape Khalifa gave away as a free download last April. His popularity mushroomed across the Internet, and Atlantic Records signed him soon after.
As a result of doggedly touring to support his mix tapes, Khalifa had built a large and loyal core of fans without major label support. So why go back to the majors?
“A major label can always make it bigger, put more dollars behind it, and in turn, make me more money,” Khalifa says. “Atlantic, they understand [me]. . . . I have complete control, creative control over the album. I pick my singles. I pick my packaging. I pick what I’m gonna wear, say what the [bleep] 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.”
Look carefully through the haze at a Wiz Khalifa concert and you’ll see a trusting fan base that runs the gamut from aging hip-hop heads to giddy suburban teens, from fashionably dressed skaters to disheveled burnouts who look like they should be at a Phish concert.
“I’m encouraging other people to just be themselves which is spawning a whole new movement of being free and being cool,” Khalifa says. “We’re like modern-day hippies.”
The crowd at Khalifa’s biggest performance to date, however, weren’t modern-day hippies. They were jacked-up Steelers fans crammed into Heinz Field for the AFC championship game where Khalifa performed “Black and Yellow” before kickoff.
It was a proud moment for the Pittsburgh rapper — but he’s not a native. Born in North Dakota to now-divorced military parents, Khalifa moved all around the country before settling down to live with his mom in Pittsburgh as a teenager. Now, hanging out in his old neighborhood is tough. “They chase my car,” he says of his most crazed hometown fans.
Back at the bowling alley, the smitten teenage girls who crowd around Khalifa appear dazed but not crazed. Once the rapper finishes his on-air interview with WKYS DJ Angie Ange, he greets them one by one, doling out hugs while cameras flash. Instead of saying cheese, he curls his lip like a weeded-out Elvis — a pose now immortalized on the cover of Rolling Stone.
“He wouldn’t take off his shirt for me,” says Mitrisse Rice, 19, a student at Baltimore City Community College, after meeting the rapper. “He told me he just got some new tattoos that are still healing, but I wanted a shirt-off picture.”
Khalifa doesn’t roll any frames, either. As soon as the last photo is taken, he and his entourage vanish into the parking lot, presumably to go roll something else.