By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Wiz Khalifa wants a $100,000. For a single performance.
That may sound like a tall order, but it's not out of the question in the near future for Khalifa. The 23-year-old burgeoning rap phenom is on the come-up. In addition to garnering some impressive accolades—from being featured on the cover of XXL as one of the magazine's "10 Freshman for '10" to being named Hottest Breakthrough MC of 2010 by MTV—he's been selling out every show on his current Waken Baken Tour with Southern rapper Yelawolf. And all this notoriety is neither newfound nor a fluke.
"This has been more like a grassroots movement I've been working on for a long time," Khalifa says. "I put out my first mixtape when I was 16. I've been on a constant grind and building a real fan base. It's finally paying off. Since I was a kid, I've been making the best out of nothing."
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And out of nowhere, apparently. With his mother and father both in the military, Khalifa bounced around often. Born in North Dakota but raised in Pittsburgh, he has lived all over the world, from Germany to Japan.
"Moving around a lot didn't really affect my music," he admits, "but it definitely helped me out more as a person. I learned everywhere I lived."
In other words, he gained wisdom, and that wisdom came early and informs who he is today. Born Cameron Jibril Thomaz (Wiz Khalifa is the rapper's stage name: Wiz is short for "wisdom," while Khalifa is derived from the Arabic word for "successor"), Khalifa released his first album, Show and Prove, when he was just 18. At an age when most of his peers were still sitting on the couch playing video games and contemplating their next bong hit, Khalifa was signed to Warner Bros. and taking steps toward his future. And he was off to a good start: His synth-heavy debut single, "Say Yeah," reached No. 25 on the Billboard Rhythmic Top 40 chart and No. 20 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks.
After releasing four subsequent mix tapes, Khalifa parted ways with Warner Bros. in July 2009 because of numerous delays in releasing his planned debut, First Flight, and dedicated himself fully to Rostrum Recordings, his original label. With influences like Camp Lo, Biggie Smalls and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Khalifa's style is heavily street-oriented with hard-hitting bass, solid raps and melodic hooks. His sophomore effort, Deal or No Deal, was released last November and showcases his knack for clever wordplay and descriptive lyrics.
"All the stuff I write about is all stuff that I've seen personally or experienced on my own," he says. "It all goes together. It's real life. I think I pick and choose wisely."
Well, with some things. More often than not, the rapper can be seen imbibing on stage. While this has become rather stereotypical of mainstream rappers, there really seems to be no shame in Khalifa's game.
"I just tell them to do what they do," he says in response to the notion of influencing potentially impressionable youngsters. "They know what's right and what's wrong. That's on them. I just get really high and perform. There's nothing wrong with that."
Perhaps medicating also helps Khalifa deal with the pressure of being one of the rap game's next big things. Between the whirlwind circus of publicity—it's not uncommon for Khalifa to do a half-dozen interviews on the phone, followed by three radio and two television appearances—and maintaining a rigorous touring schedule, Khalifa is seemingly pulled in multiple directions at once.
"I've definitely just got to continue building on top of what I already have going on, or at least maintain," he says. "Music is my life, so I basically I put everything I live and know into my music. The recognition I'm getting is great. Front cover of XXL? That's enough for anyone."