Wiz Khalifa is not ashamed to admit that he still lives with his mom, which tells us pretty much everything we need to know about him. The 23-year-old Pennsylvanian typifies the new breed of nerd-chic rapper, his persona indebted in equal parts to Kanye West (for his shameless confessions), Lil Wayne (for his absurdist wordplay), and Pharrell Williams (for his taste in skinny jeans).
For all the aesthetic inspiration he draws from those guys, the artist Khalifa most closely resembles from a branding standpoint might just be Lady Gaga; she has her “little monsters”, and Khalifa has his “Taylors”, the fans he's drawn into an inner circle of like-minded cool kids.
“I figured out my audience early on,” says the MC, calling the Straight from his home. “I figured out how to get my music directly to them on the Internet and build on top of what I know people want to hear from me. I know who I'm talking to now. We've built our own little world.”
While Khalifa is being billed as rap's next big thing—he appeared on the cover of XXL magazine's “Top 10 Freshmen” issue and earned MTV's “Hottest Breakthrough MC” tag earlier this year—he actually broke out two years ago with “Say Yeah”, a throwaway pop-trance single that became a surprise hit.
In that song's aftermath, Khalifa languished on Warner Bros. for a year before finally walking away from the label. His reinvention began with 2009's Flight School, the first of many mix tapes showcasing his wisecracking lyrics and sing-song delivery. Like fellow up-and-comers Kid Cudi and B.O.B., Khalifa's regular-guy persona and melodic gifts make him a good candidate for success in an era when gangster credentials aren't required to reach hip-hop's upper ranks.
“It's been a long time where the same artists have been around and now they're on their fourth or fifth album,” says the MC of today's shifting landscape. “It's time for new music and a new wave of talent. The people who were legends to us, the kids under us, they might listen to 'em and know how legendary they are but they weren't around when they were first blowing up. Now the cycle's going around and the younger fans want to support the most talented younger rappers.”
Khalifa is looking to consolidate that loyalty with his next album, scheduled for release next year on Atlantic. His recent “Black and Yellow”, which has become an anthem of sorts for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, is a shiny number produced by the Norwegian pop hitmakers Stargate (Beyoncé, Rihanna). While he admits he will work with pop producers on the album (he cites Jim Jonsin, for one), he insists he'll continue to work with the team of hometown beatmakers who made this year's Kush and Orange Juice one of 2010's best mix tapes.
“What built me wasn't just my lyrics and my melodies or whatever; it was the overall sound,” he says. “The people I've been working with, we know each other, we respect each other and we push ourselves to the next level. It's only right that we stick with the same formula. If we changed it, people would definitely be able to tell.”
Wiz Khalifa plays two shows at Fortune Sound Club on Thursday (October 14).