With a freshly signed contract in his pocket and the hopes of a region of hip-hop fans on his shoulders, Wiz Khalifa seemed poised to gain a level of recognition few Pittsburgh artists have reached when he joined Warner Bros. Records in 2007.
But after two years produced less than desirable results, Khalifa parted ties with the label and sparked an online push he said has brought him closer to his goal than ever before.
"I feel like [Warner Bros.] lost interest in the project," said Wiz. "All the original people that were over there when I first got signed ended up getting fired, so there was no one in the building that had the same feeling toward the project that we did."
After an amicable split allowed Wiz to keep music created under the label, he kicked off a whirlwind of activity including online videos, national appearances and the release of three mixtapes that included "at least 50 songs."
"I really figured out that these days, with how fast the game is moving and how fast the fans are able to access music, I gotta be able to make a lot of music and really just flood the streets and the Internet the right way," said Wiz.
"We did a little mini-tour this summer, which really helped kick things off for when school came back around. And with the buzz building up with everybody getting on to my music on a wider scale and a wider range, everything just picked up and fell into line."
But anything that fell in line for Wiz over the past year came as a direct result of his push, particularly online. Since last year, he has posted regular blogs and videos on a YouTube channel, written hooks and recorded songs during live webcasts on the site Ustream and drawn more than 41,000 followers to his Twitter account.
"I built that from the ground up," he said proudly. "There are artists with major record deals that are on TV that don't have that many followers, so I really feel like me just grinding, working hard, staying at it, giving people what they like, has helped me be successful as far as the Internet goes."
And Internet success is the key to success for today's artist, said Wiz. In an environment where decreased album sales equal limited funds for new artists at major labels, independent artists can release songs and videos to millions of listeners, in many cases, for free. Artists also have control over their image and sound, something Wiz said became another issue during his time with Warner.
"I think they had me figured as a different kind of artist than I really am. They thought the [pop/dance] song, 'Say Yeah' was the sound I was going for, that every song I was going to be making was going to be like that," he said.
"With me being such an in-depth artist with so many different avenues and so many different pieces to me, it takes a little bit more to market me and really figure out who my core audience is. That just takes time, and with the labels these days, they're not trying to spend that much time and put that much effort into it."
Wiz's most recent album, the aptly named "Deal or no Deal," seems like a direct attempt to smash any preconceived notions drawn about his style because of the hit single. The compilation of new singles and unreleased Warner songs shows a range of flow styles, from the fast-paced delivery of "Right Here" (featuring Josh Everette) to the melodic autotune style of "Who I Am." Songs like "Red Carpet (Like a Movie)" "Hit Tha Flo," and club banger "Superstar," feature radio-friendly themes of celebrity and serial philandering, but distinctly R&B tracks and bass lines place the songs firmly out of the realm of pop music.
And with "Deal or No Deal" passing releases from heavyweights Jay-Z and 50 Cent to take the No. 2 spot on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart only two days after its release, Wiz said he's in no hurry to pursue another major label deal. In fact, if the industry shifts its focus toward digital marketing the way Wiz thinks it will in the future, many major labels will turn to guys like him for their business models instead of their music.
"I really don't regret working with Warner because I learned a lot of stuff from being over there, but the situation didn't work out because the game changed. Everything changes so you have to be able to adapt and adjust, and always work for yourself and don't let nobody hustle harder for you than you hustle for yourself," he said.
"I'm in a way better position in my career than I was over at Warner, so it's like I'm there and I'm doing OK, but I leave and I'm doing so much better. I'm working for myself and I'm doing all this stuff myself, so I might as well just stick to what's working."
"Deal or no Deal" was released Nov. 24 through Rostrum Records, Frank Radio and iHipHop Distribution.
Deborah M. Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.