When Wiz Khalifa appeared on City Paper's cover last October, the then-19-year-old Pittsburgh rapper had already laid claim to the title "Prince of the City." He staked the claim based on a hot mixtape of the same name as well as on Show and Prove, his debut album for the independent label Rostrum Records. But what the title actually seemed to signify was an appeal that cut across some of the city's usual boundaries. Khalifa's attitude eschewed narrow neighborhood loyalties, while his sound borrowed from a number of hip-hop currents: Southern hip hop's bounce, alongside a laid-back West Coast delivery, and R&B samples and lyrical imagery more in line with the East.
A year later, with the follow-up mixtape Prince of the City 2 just out, the Prince's crown is still usually his trademark Pirates ball cap, even as the confident young emcee's kingdom has extended well beyond the city limits. As one of his latest tracks, "Be Easy," proclaims: "That Pistolvania shit, I'm on it / And I don't run the 'Burgh, I own it."
There've been glowing write-ups in Rolling Stone, XXL, VIBE and Allhiphop.com. New mixtapes and collaborations with other hot emcees and producers. Performances at the CMJ Music Festival and Mr. Small's Theatre, not to mention holding down Mellon Arena as an opener for Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy at WAMO's Summer Jam.
Oh, and there's also that major-label record deal.
"I'm just taking it all in, for real for real," Khalifa says of his new deal with Warner Bros., which is about to release his second nationwide single, "Say Yeah." His full-length album is expected to drop in the first quarter of 2008. "It's definitely been a learning experience," he says.
Not bad for a guy who, not long ago, was just another kid at Taylor Allderdice High School. But while Khalifa spent most of his teens in Pittsburgh, he was born in North Dakota. And unlike most of his peers in the local scene, Khalifa, the child of military personnel, grew up traveling from country to country: Japan, Germany, England and all over the U.S.
Perhaps it's that wider perspective that allows him to see his growing success not as some kind of reward for his talent, but as the result of careful planning, hard work and above all, patience.
"This is a real job, so I see it as that," he says. After a year of getting a look behind "all the glitz and glamour" of the rap industry's surface, he adds, "I have a whole new respect for the game."
But despite all the doors that have been opening, Khalifa's day-to-day life has remained much the same. He still heads down to Lawrenceville's I.D. Labs studios almost every day, to continue refining his music. And he still looks to his team for support: I.D. Labs producer Eric Dan, Chad Glick, Artie Pitt and Benjy Grinberg, the Allderdice grad and industry insider who founded Rostrum Records, and has carefully nurtured Khalifa's career.
There are some new perks to being the Prince, though. Khalifa has been granted a private domain in I.D.'s basement with a computer and recording equipment -- "basically a setup for me where I can write," he says.
He should enjoy that peaceful hometown haven while he can, because 2008 promises to be busy.
"It's grind time," he acknowledges. "Anything I gotta do, I'm there."
True, you'll hear that kind of talk from almost every rapper, local wannabes included. But during the upcoming holidays, while many of us are lolling in food comas, shuffling slippers through shredded wrapping paper and pine needles, Khalifa will be splitting time between Pittsburgh, visiting family in Maryland, promotional trips to New York and California, and prepping for a show here on Dec. 28, opening for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at the Gravity all-ages club.
"I appreciate all the love," says Khalifa. "412 -- we already on the map, but people are about to know for sure."