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Album reviews: Internet, Wiz Khalifa, Ben Vaughn [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Wiz Khalifa

"Rolling Papers 2"

(Taylor Gang/Atlantic (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

Anyone paying attention to Wiz Khalifa as of late recognizes that that the usually lanky Pittsburgh-born rapper (and ex-husband to Philly's Amber Rose) has put meat on his bones. The same sort of muscle can be found, too, in the music he's made since 2014's Blacc Hollywood. There's a density to the sound and a gravity to his lyrics to be found in this, his newest mixtape/album, "Rolling Papers 2," that simply didn't exist on early singles such as the fun "Black and Yellow," from 2011's first Rolling Papers.

A woozy production such as the ruminative "Ocean" finds the Wiz rhapsodizing about the ups-and-downs of the good life while stuck in a smoky-hotel room. While lyrically allowing Khalifa a shot at Raymond Chander-like noir imagery, the music is as filled with souped-up synths a la Kanye's classic "808 & Heartbreak." "Mr. Williams/Where is the Love," is a riveting rap battle and a creamy R&B duet in one thick burst of manic musical energy. The song "Rolling Papers 2" weirdly wells up with Wiz emotion as he raps, "I done seen people suffer, hate turned into love/Lost some people to get here, but they watching us from up above," through the track's hypnotic pulse and hazy production. Not every song is as dramatic or dire as those - several of his duets, such as his boastful Snoop Dogg pairing "Penthouse" are meh - but, this is the Wiz at a new peak and flying highest. And I don't mean from the after effects of the weed. - A.D. Amorosi

Ben Vaughn

"Imitation Wood Grain and Other Folk Songs"

(Many Moods Records (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

The title signals that "Imitation Wood Grain and Other Folk Songs" is something a little different for Ben Vaughn. Over his long career, the California-based music maven from South Jersey has displayed an omnivorous taste for vintage rock and pop as well as roots styles, from his own albums to his production work and his instrumental soundtracks for TV's "That '70s Show" and "Third Rock From the Sun." He's never really played the strumming troubadour, but here it's just him, his acoustic guitar, and his voice (and dig that mouth harp).

These aren't so much folk songs as Ben Vaughn songs. His wry humor surfaces in numbers such as "Look What the Cat Dragged In," and "Apropos of Nothing," while "Echo Chamber Blues" is a fun vocal exercise. The bleak themes of "People It's Bad" and "Rock Bottom" jar a bit with the bright arrangements, giving them an ironic cast. But the stripped-down, intimate approach does enhance the best songs here, which deal with affairs of the heart, from the upbeat "When Love Returns" to the wistful "Imitation Wood Grain" and the somber Somebody Don't Love Somebody." - Nick Cristiano

The Internet

"Hive Mind"

(Columbia (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK) 1/2)

Take the Internet literally. Last album was called "Ego Death," and former Odd Future DJ Sydney Bennett was already one of R&B's least showy singers whether she was interlocking with bassist Patrick Paige II or a powerhouse guest like Janelle Monae. After "FIN," Syd's even tighter (and equally astonishing) solo shot last year, the ego is long deceased on Hive Mind, which mixes down the entire group further into the hazy, collective neo-soul groove. Guitarist Steve Lacy is their other breakout star, beloved by bloggers for making Kendrick Lamar beats at age 20, and his vamps on standout single "Come Over" give airy-as-ever Syd's lascivious vocal the teeth it needs. Then again, she sings "Sorry that I'm so blase" on "La Di Da," the most aggressive vocal of her career. Still, it's Paige who buoys these non-songs with the best bottom of the Miguel/Weeknd era - and at times keeps them from evaporating. - Dan Weiss

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