How Curren$y—Not Kid Cudi—Helped Develop Wiz Khalifa's Style

Kanye West should have credited another rapper for influencing Wiz Khalifa last week.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Kanye West dominated headlines last week after he dragged Wiz Khalifa for a bit on Twitter, saying (among other things) that West was his “OG and should be respected as such.” One tweet that stood out, however, was this confusing assertion: “Bro, first of all you stole your whole shit from Cudi.” On the surface, it seemed like West has a point; there are definitely some clear comparisons to draw. Both are unabashed stoner-rappers, both of their major label debuts were propelled by melody-driven radio hits, and both are known primarily for their hazy aesthetic and smooth, slow-paced flows.

That all may be true, but when you consider the state of their careers today, they really couldn’t be more different. Wiz has moved further into pop radio territory over the years, scoring the biggest hit of his career with 2015’s “See You Again” and working with acts like Maroon 5, Miley Cyrus, and Fall Out Boy. Meanwhile, Kid Cudi has retreated from the spotlight, leaving G.O.O.D. Music, fervently avoiding radio singles, and releasing experimental albums like last December’s grunge rock project Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. Thus, while it might have been fair for Kanye to say that Cudi’s work cleared a path for Wiz’s success (particularly 2009’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day and Kanye’s groundbreaking, Cudi-assisted 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak), the roots of Wiz’s music go much deeper than a simple rap-by-the-numbers Cudder copy. In fact, his place in the game can be largely traced back to a different rapper: Curren$y.

the roots of Wiz’s music go much deeper than a simple rap-by-the-numbers Cudder copy. In fact, his place in the game can be largely traced back to a different rapper: Curren$y.

In order to understand the true origins of Wiz Khalifa’s sound, you have to go all the way back to 2007. Fresh off the release of his first independent Rostrum Records album, Show & Prove, Wiz Khalifa was starting to get noticed. This was a different Wiz than the one we know today, however. His rap style was much more aggressive, leaning heavily on gangster tropes and street appeal. You can hear it in the lyrics of “Stay in Ur Lane,” where he raps, “Man they put you in the dirt here/You steady throwin' up the set, but you ain't never put in work there/So all that talk about the game you bang/Just stay in your lane before a shot lay in ya frame," or in his constant reference to his home state as “Pistolvania.” It’s strange to hear this from a rapper now known for his goofy stoner persona, but apparently it worked pretty well for him. Wiz nabbed a record deal with Warner Bros. in 2007, promising his major label debut would be out in short order.

As everyone knows, things didn’t turn out quite the way he planned, at least not at first. Many were surprised when his album’s lead single (“Say Yeah”) made a play for the Billboard charts, sampling Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone.” Although it was a minor hit, it felt inauthentic, and proved to be the kiss of death for his deal with Warner Bros. The album was perpetually delayed, and he announced his departure from the label in July of 2009, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I didn’t get dropped from Warner, but they definitely lost interest in the project…. After ‘Say Yeah,’ I think they wanted me to be that artist who just does that [sound].” The news was a big blow to his budding career, and threatened to derail all the success that he had been working towards. Nonetheless, he was determined to make it work, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I'm happy to be moving on with all of my material and having the chance to be in control of my next moves.”

Luckily for Wiz, he had already begun plotting those moves. “In the middle of me knowing [the deal] wasn’t working out, I was like alright I gotta start branching out and doing my own shit,” he told a fan in a parking lot interview after a show in Indianapolis. In August of 2009, Wiz did exactly that, dropping the joint mixtape How Fly with New Orleans rapper Curren$y. The pair met on Myspace and linked up in Louisiana to record the project. At the time, Curren$y was retooling his own career after years of languishing at Young Money without an album release. “We did a mixtape that we thought was just going to be cool in New Orleans and Pittsburgh,” he recalled in a 2015 interview. “But it did something.”

“Something” was right. The mixtape was an instant hit online, and now sits at over 800,000 downloads on DatPiff. More than that, it helped Wiz develop his sound and gain exposure to a new fan base. Linking up with Spitta chilled him out, bringing more melody, more weed references, and a slower-paced flow, all of which are now hallmarks of his music. Curren$y also brought some of his post-Young Money fans to the table. “With us bringing our movements together, that just helped make everything stronger,” Khalifa told Fab5Entertainment in 2009. How Fly was a big success, and it was key for getting momentum back in his career after all the delays associated with his failed stint at Warner Bros.

The Pittsburgh rapper didn’t waste any time in capitalizing on this buzz. Using pre and post-Warner Bros. music, he cobbled together a successful follow-up mixtape called Burn After Rolling; it most famously produced “The Thrill,” sampling Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream” in a move that would have been totally out-of-step with the old Wiz but fit right in with the new one. This was quickly followed by his second Rostrum Records album, Deal or No Deal, which cracked the iTunes top 10, and even took the No. 1 spot on its hip-hop chart. “Now he’s getting arguably as much attention for [Deal or No Deal] on a teensy indie label as he ever did back when he was signed to a major,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Simon Vozick-Levinson.

This moment proved to be an important stepping stone for both artists. Curren$y went on to release his critically acclaimed 2010 album, Pilot Talk. Though it wasn’t a big seller, it started a wave that Curren$y rode to become a pillar of the underground hip-hop community. That same year, Wiz Khalifa dropped Kush & Orange Juice, which many old-school fans still cite as their favorite project. That mixtape also set the stage for Khalifa to sign a record deal with Atlantic, leading to the release of Rolling Papers and the widespread commercial success that he’s enjoyed since.

Even after all of Wiz’s achievements on the Billboard Charts, the pair continue to collaborate and influence each other. “Me and Curren$y, we started a whole culture together so that’s something we’ll always have,” Wiz said in a 2015 interview with French magazine Yard. He’s right. At a precarious time in his career, linking up with Spitta helped him to establish a new sound, gain back buzz, and slingshot him to the next level of stardom. If Kanye had said Wiz jacked or piggybacked off Curren$y’s style, it might have even been a fair assessment, but dismissing him as a carbon copy of Kid Cudi ignores the reality of his meteoric rise to stardom. Love him or hate him, Khalifa now sits near the top of the heap in terms of commercial appeal in hip-hop, and if there’s one man to thank for that, it’s Curren$y, not Kid Cudi.

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