Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth on Channeling Paul Walker for 'See You Again' and Weed-Inspired Music
Just a few months ago, Charlie Puth was a mostly unknown 23-year-old singer from Rumson, N.J., waiting for his big break. But on this sunny afternoon in Manhattan, he's fresh off rehearsing for his Saturday Night Live debut, unwinding in a two-floor penthouse suite at the ritzy Gansevoort Park Avenue hotel, and turning down weed from none other than Wiz Khalifa.
"Want some?" asks the rapper, proffering an expertly rolled blunt.
"I really wish I could smoke, but I can't," says Puth. "My voice..."
"Just stand in the room with me and it'll happen at some point," replies Khalifa. (Puth eventually partakes.)
The unlikely pair, who only met two months ago, rehearsing for their March 16 Tonight Show appearance, have every right to celebrate: Khalifa's "See You Again" (featuring Puth) is topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a fourth week, abruptly ending the 14-week streak of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk!" and selling 1.7 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. The song scores the last scene of Furious 7 -- the blockbuster film that has grossed $1.4 billion worldwide (according to Box Office Mojo) since its March premiere -- and launched its soundtrack, released March 17 by Atlantic, to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It also has made an overnight star of Puth, who boasts a Sam Smith-like vocal range, piano skills honed at Berklee College of Music and teen-idol looks with one noticeable twist -- a large scar on his right eyebrow, the result of a childhood dog bite. "We brought the power ballad back," says Puth of "See You Again." "It's a big, uplifting song anyone can connect to."
As for Khalifa, 27, "See You Again" is his second surprise No. 1 after 2011's "Black & Yellow," which many had assumed would be his commercial peak. "It was an opportunity to do something I wouldn't normally do on my own," says Khalifa. "It feels great to be part of a song that has a good message."
The inspiration behind that message is tragedy. "See You Again" is a tribute to Fast & Furious franchise star Paul Walker, who died in a car accident in 2013. When production on Furious 7, which was being filmed at the time, started up again after a six-month hiatus, director James Wan and his team came up with a new ending for the film as tribute: Piecing together CGI, shots of body doubles and clips from old films, the closing scene features Walker exchanging final words with co-star Vin Diesel and driving off into the sunset. Only one thing was missing: the right song to accompany it. Mike Knobloch, president of film, music and publishing at Universal Pictures, who had been involved with the franchise since 2011's Fast Five, says the sequence needed music that could capture "the human level" of the subject and strike the right balance. "We wanted to recognize and celebrate Paul. We couldn't have people leaving the theater sad."
Puth -- who first broke into the biz after his YouTube cover of Adele's "Someone Like You" landed him a deal with Ellen DeGeneres' now-defunct eleveneleven label in 2011 -- found out about the Furious filmmakers' need through his publisher, Artist Publishing Group. The day after the singer moved to Los Angeles in July 2014 to revamp his stalled career, Puth wrote, co-produced and sang what would become "See You Again" in a session at Warner Music's Burbank studios with co-producer Justin "DJ Frank E" Franks. Though Puth had never met Walker, he says he "felt an energy" in the room and started choking up 10 minutes into the session. "I had experienced a loss very similar to Paul, where a friend passed away in a car accident. The first words out of my mouth were, 'It's been a long day,' " recalls Puth, singing the chorus' opening bar. He looked at Franks, and they hugged each other. "What did we just make?" Puth recalls saying in shock.
Mike Caren, Warner Music Group’s worldwide head of A&R, commissioned more than 100 writers and producers to pen music for the soundtrack, but says the project only felt complete when he heard Puth's chorus. "We were looking for melody, lyrics, beats and musicality, and 'See You Again' had all those things in spades," says Caren, who signed Puth to APG shortly thereafter.
Atlantic signee Khalifa, whose 2013 Fast & Furious 6 single "We Own It" reached No. 16 on the Hot 100, was then enlisted, partly for his history with the franchise. Like Puth, Khalifa never met Walker, but he connected to the song and recorded verses in friend Snoop Dogg's L.A. home studio. "I loved Charlie's voice and the message," he says. "I've lost a lot of people, so I just channeled that energy." Adds Kevin Weaver, Atlantic's president of film and television, "He cut these amazing verses about family and brotherhood and last rides - all these things that were so important to the film."
Though he's best-known for brash stoner-party anthems like 2014's "We Dem Boyz," Khalifa seems to be embracing this softer side -- after all, he's a family man now. Since the birth of his son Sebastian in 2013, Khalifa has weathered a very public (and messy) divorce and custody battle with wife Amber Rose. In March, TMZ reported that Khalifa sent Rose "See You Again" -- which features him rapping, "How could we not talk about family when family's all that we got?" -- and that the song prompted Rose to tearfully reach out to him and agree to co-parent Sebastian. Khalifa has never confirmed that report, and declined to respond to Billboard's questions about Rose -- who's now reportedly dating rapper Machine Gun Kelly -- but says his life is "totally different" now. "I'm all about family," says Khalifa. "When it comes down to it, that's all that you have. My main focus is on my relationship with my son, my boogie-boo."
In between, Khalifa is also focused on a summer tour with Fall Out Boy and a new album, which he vows will feature a new collaboration with his new labelmate: Puth, who released his debut EP, Some Kind of Love, May 1 on Atlantic.
"I'ma put Charlie on my album," says Khalifa. "I want to get him to sing about marijuana."
"I'll sing it in a sweet falsetto though," replies Puth. "It sounds like your next single to me!"
This story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.