Back in 2004, when Wiz was a teenager attending Taylor Allderdice High School, he wandered into a Pittsburgh recording studio headed by E. Dan of the production duo I.D. Labs. When E. Dan heard Wiz rhyme over a Dipset instrumental, he was blown away. He helped Wiz put together a handful of songs that landed in the hands of Benjy Grinberg, who signed Wiz to Rostrum Records in 2005.
“There are a lot of guys who can rap,” says E. Dan. “But there are only certain guys who have that charisma. It was one of the first times I recorded somebody and thought, ‘This dude has got it.’”
The seeds of Wiz’s charisma and his love for music were planted by his father, a military man named Laurence Thomaz. “Wiz’s dad is a real musical person,” says Will Dzombak, Wiz’s day-to-day manager and co-CEO of Taylor Gang. “Growing up, instead of watching TV, they used to always listen to music. He took that with him as he got older.”
When you do an album, you can’t separate the music from the business because it’s music business.
As he grew up, Wiz went through phases where he would dream of being a member of his favorite rap crews: Wu-Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Three 6 Mafia, and the Diplomats. Still, his father kept him rooted in reality.
“My dad made me write down goals every couple of months,” Wiz recalls. “He’d say, ‘What are your goals for the next couple months?’ I’d tell him, ‘To get this, to do this, and have enough money to buy this.’”
Looks like the advice paid off. Last year, Wiz tied Drake on Forbes’ list of Hip-Hop’s Top Earners, coming in at No. 11 with $11 million. Enough money to cop a mansion in suburban Canonsburg, PA for a reported $900,000 to go with his apartment in L.A.
The road to that mansion was paved with hard work, starting with Wiz’s first mixtape, Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania. Released in May 2006, it featured a very different-sounding rapper. As the title would suggest, Wiz’s rap style was more aggressive and street-oriented than the laid-back stoner flow he’s known for now.
Still, young Wiz had enough promise to score a deal with Warner Music Group in 2007. But after two years and little progress, Wiz and WMG parted ways.“
They butted heads,” says Sledgren, Wiz’s longtime producer, who remembers the days when they couldn’t get airplay in Pittsburgh. “It was like, ‘Let me off the label and I’ma do this myself.’ Some people have ugly label splits but it wasn’t like that. Warner just let the situation go. People used to make fun of us, like, ‘Wiz got dropped.’ And I was like, ‘So what?’”
The Warner years weren’t a complete loss, though. According to Benjy, the experience taught them an important lesson. “When we signed with Warner we figured they’d handle everything,” Benjy said via email. “We were wrong. We learned that we couldn’t ever rely solely on the major label. From that point on we were going to rely on ourselves.”
Wiz looks back on ’07 as an important turning point. “When I did Prince of the City 2, I never felt like I was forcing anything,” he says. “I put it all together. I had club records, girl records, and ones where I was spitting. I figured out all the different dimensions of myself and pulled them together and realized, I can’t just give people one or two styles. I had to be like, ‘This is me. I’m the complete package.’”
That growth spurt lead to a trio of projects starting with 2009’s Flight School, a mixtape on which E. Dan says Wiz was “starting to find his own path.” That was followed by the successful independent album Deal or No Deal. And then, in 2010, Wiz blossomed as an artist, unleashing his breakthrough, Kush & Orange Juice.
The mixtape’s impact was undeniable, becoming a trending topic on Twitter the day of its release. “That was when he completed the transition to the Wiz we all know and love,” says E. Dan. “That was the first project where he said, ‘I’m going to do exactly what I’m feeling, what I want to hear. I’m not going to try to specifically appeal to anyone. I’m going to do my style.’ It was like, ‘This is me, this is where I’m coming from, and this is the statement I want to make.’”
Rolling a joint filled with his own strain of weed—dubbed Khalifa Kush—Wiz explains the difference. “Kush & Orange Juice is a classic mixtape, but it’s still a mixtape,” he says. “That mixtape is raw. I did what I wanted to do. You can’t do that on an album because other people gotta eat off that album. There’s business that goes into an album. When you do an album, you can’t separate the music from the business because it’s music business.”
The album Wizzle has been eating off is his Atlantic Records major label debut, 2011’s Rolling Papers. It was a huge commercial success, topping the Rap chart and debuting at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, spawning several Top 40 hits, and selling over 750,000 copies in the US. But Wiz’s longtime fans criticized the album for a lack of lyrical depth and the pop feel of Wiz’s work with Stargate and Benny Blanco.
“People were like, ‘Wiz changed. He’s singing and making more radio songs,’” says Sledgren. “But he was always singing; it just didn’t come out until certain projects.” Still, Wiz found it hard to shrug off the criticism. One night last February, he decided to post a letter on his Tumblr titled “Strictly for My Taylors.” The letter began as a thank-you to his fans but soon turned into a reflection on Rolling Papers. “The album did great numbers, but creatively wasn’t my best work,” he admitted.
Wiz says the letter was his way of letting the Taylors know “that I hear what they’re saying.” That letter has become almost as significant to his fans as any of his records—a masterful example of the hip-hop balancing act. The letter was followed up shortly with Taylor Allderdice, a mixtape on par with his best work that functioned as a creative reboot.
Although Wiz’s letter specfically said he didn’t regret the album, it’s clear he did have some regrets. “I’m used to listening to my music all the time, critiquing it, and making it better,” said Wiz, when asked about the letter. “I didn’t really get a chance to do that with Rolling Papers. I looked back and decided I can’t do that again.”
He’s determined not to let the same thing happen with his new album, O.N.I.F.C. For Wiz, it’s not just about the music, it’s about the Wiz Khalifa brand—one that goes beyond partying and smoking weed and that represents a lifestyle, an attitude, freedom. Hip-hop.
“The people that are buying Frank Ocean, they don’t buy into one song that he sings,” says Wiz of the Def Jam star who also (in)famously wrote an open letter on Tumblr. “He sings 20 songs. Frank Ocean is the name. You can either get with it or you can keep trying to be a song. I’m not trying to be no song. It’s always the name.”