Wiz Khalifa arrived at photographer Hannibal Matthews’ studio wearing a gray pullover hoodie, Chicago White Sox baseball cap and Army fatigue shorts. A Pittsburgh Pirates emblem filled with black and yellow diamonds connected to a gold link that hung from his neck. An avid sneaker collector, Khalifa wore his beloved black Chuck Taylors.
Kush X OJ, his acclaimed mixtape, blasted out of the speakers as he removed his pullover and exposed his tattoo-laden arms and neck. While being groomed for his first photo look, Khalifa set fire to the end of what appeared to be a tightly rolled marijuana-filled cigarette and pulled from the smoldering spliff. It was a routine moment in the life of a certified marijuana aficionado.
Khalifa (whose government name is Cameron Thomas) doesn’t have an issue with expressing his adoration for marijuana. In fact, it’s become entrenched in his persona as a rising hip-hop artist. He has released his own brand of marijuana rolling papers; he’s revealed that it’s not unusual for him to spend up to $10,000 per month on weed; and he even released a viral video prior to the Nov. 2, 2010, election that encouraged California voters to vote for Proposition 19. The proposition would have decriminalized the use of marijuana in the state.
“A few people in California brought it to my attention and asked me if I wanted to speak on it,” Khalifa revealed. “I was like ‘heck yea.’ The proposition didn’t go through, but we’re still going to smoke weed.”
However, becoming a spokesman for an illegal drug has its drawbacks. In November 2010, police in Greenville, N.C., arrested him after discovering marijuana on his tour bus. In the state of North Carolina, more than 1.5 ounces of marijuana is a felony charge that can lead to 12 months in prison. Khalifa will likely enter a plea deal to avoid going to trial.
“It’s just something that comes with the territory,” Khalifa says when asked about the potential backlash for his brazen use of marijuana. “My fans are into me for the complete package of reasons that they’re into me. The same things that we used to build our brand are the the same things that are going to be there as we progress.”
Khalifa built his brand through trial and error. He released his debut album, Show and Prove, in 2006 and was signed to Warner Bros in 2007. The label shelved his debut and cut his contract. He eventually released Deal or No Deal in 2009 and numerous mixtapes to satisfy and enlarge his fan base.
Most fans remained loyal to Khalifa because his music captures the essence of embracing a carefree attitude and smoke-obsessed lifestyle. Instead of being that guy who everyone wants to drink a beer with, marijuana smokers want to get high with Khalifa.
His common touch allowed him to achieve success in hip-hop despite hailing from Pittsburgh –– a city that currently lacks a rap or contemporary R&B radio station and is obscure on the national hip-hop scene. Khalifa stands as the first artist from the Steel City to establish a respectable buzz in hip-hop.
“It was only a matter of time before all the pieces of the puzzle came together,” he says. “I feel like it’s getting to be our time now. We have a lot of flavor [in Pittsburgh] so we just mix it up [with] different styles. While coming up, I had to be able to put all of those styles together and be able to make everybody in my city happy.”
The city of Pittsburgh was more than elated with Khalifa’s hit single, “Black and Yellow.” An ode to the city’s sports teams [the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins] whose color schemes are black and yellow. As the Pittsburgh Steelers earned a spot in the Super Bowl, “Black and Yellow” became the team’s official song, and it ascended to the top of the Billboard charts.
The song has taken on a life of its own and inspired violinists, guitarists and wannabe rappers, such as Tom Hanks’ son, Chet, to upload their own versions of “Black and Yellow” on YouTube. During Super Bowl weekend, Lil Wayne recorded a “Green and Yellow” remix.
“It’s just a dream come true,” Khalifa says about the popularity of “Black and Yellow.” “The Steelers run to the Super Bowl was huge. It became the song everyone wanted to play during the Super Bowl. Lil Wayne came with the ‘Green and Yellow’ remix, and it made the record stand out. A lot of people were on to me because of my underground success, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to cross over. But, with the support of all of the DJs and people downloading it on iTunes, it’s become a huge crossover hit.”
“Black and Yellow” is the type of hit that can change a young emcee’s life. The song provided a remarkable boost to Khalifa’s music career, and it’s caused a few attention-grabbing women to take notice. He has been photographed with Natalie Nunn of “The Bad Girls Club” and Kanye West’s ex-girlfriend, Amber Rose.
In January 2011, Rose confirmed their relationship by tweeting, “I need my baby. I’m so in love I don’t care what anyone says that’s my baby. I found happiness. My heart is with Cam[eron Thomas].”
Khalifa describes their relationship as, “Currently cool.” But he’s balancing the celebrity crushes by obtaining a few celebrity mentors who have gained success in music. Diddy, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg have all provided guidance on what to expect when hip-hop dreams become a reality.
“Snoop has told me to keep everything contained by having control of all of my projects,” Khalifa admits. “Whether it’s videos or my music, I have to always be the boss of my own situation. Snoop is the type of person who handles everything, so I’m learning to do those things myself.”
Khalifa’s new album is aptly titled Rolling Papers. At times, he will give a politically correct statement about the album’s meaning. But he and his true fans know that the title is another way for him to express his unyielding affection for marijuana.
“There [are] going to be times when I’m pretty open about it,” he says. “And there will be a point when I could chill. But now, I’m over Marijuana Inc. I feel like people make other extracurricular things seem cool that are more dangerous [than marijuana]. Everybody smokes or has smoked weed before. It’s a universal thing.”