LIKE A MARVEL MOVIE, there’s DJ Khaled before the Snap and after the Snap
. Prior to his life-altering Jet-Ski ride that he documented on Snapchat, DJ Khaled was a man of many hats. A key figure on Miami’s radio airwaves, a respected producer under the Beat Novacane moniker and a burgeoning impresario who would go on to work as an executive at Def Jam.
His discography back then was held tight by a purpose to bring respect to the talent from The 305. His debut, 2006’s Listennn…The Album, was anchored by “Born-N-Raised” featuring Pitbull, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross. The following year he returned with We The Best and upped the ante while still holding firm. That project’s “We Takin’ Over” dripped with Florida pride: Rick Ross was featured as were Miami residents Fat Joe and Baby and Lil Wayne. We Global and Victory would follow suit, sticking to the same script. Even his Cash Money albums, from We The Best Forever to Suffering From Success balanced a desire to grow while putting on his artist Ace Hood and pairing Miami talent with superstar talent.
As his profile grew and his singles became more star-studded, a cheap criticism of Khaled took root: that he just grabs the hottest stars at the moment and cobbles them together on a random assortment of songs.
There’s not an artistic bridge that Khaled crosses with each endeavor.
That broadside is as uninteresting to me as the shots once directed at T-Pain that alleged AutoTune is the sole reason behind his success. T-Pain deaded that
charge. As did Khaled and the gripe directed at him.
A brief word. I’m fond of sharing the story of a conversation with Sha Money XL I had and his framing of Khaled’s work in its proper context. The crux of his argument goes like this: There’s only a finite amount of points/budget available to make an album, so Khaled has to negotiate (or motivate) artists to take less than their usual rates to serve his purpose toward a larger vision, i.e. an album. It’s a financial and creative puzzle that is constantly changing as he makes more songs and the challenge becomes increasingly more difficult the closer he gets to turning in a project. Think of Khaled as Sandra Bullock’s character in “Speed.” It’s no easy ride.
Once Khaled became a social media sensation, he inked with Roc Nation for management and signed a new recording contract with Epic Records. From there, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.
With his ninth album, Major Key, though, Khaled proved his new star turn was no fluke. The LP was certified platinum, a first for him, as he managed to rope in contributions from Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Jeezy, Future and a host of other heavy hitters. It was less Miami and more….well, just more. And his decade-plus transformation from satellite radio DJ to hip-hop’s PT Barnum was complete.
Then he gave us another one.
Grateful was his Magnum Opus. A blockbuster single featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller powered by a Carlos Santana sample in “Wild Thoughts.” And after a tenure of convincing, Khaled finally brought Justin Bieber to his circus for “I’m The One,” which also featured Chance The Rapper, Quavo and Lil Wayne. It was a reflection of Khaled’s creative instincts and his shrewd determination to make relationships old and new coalesce into product form.
Which brings us to the point of a DJ Khaled album….
Khaled isn’t an artist. He’s a DJ. Back around 2006 maybe, MTV hired him for a party (I think it was a moral boosting effort) and he killed it. He had me and timmhotep aku doing the Soula Boy dance tipsy out of our minds. Fun times.
I say that to say, there’s not an artistic bridge that Khaled crosses with each endeavor.
So the means to judge his success are standard metrics: radio play and albums sold.
And the manner to achieve that quickest is through anthems. The kind of which Khaled was a specialist at delivering. There’s “I’m So Hood” and “All I Do Is Win” and “Take it To The Head” and “Hold You Down.”
Everything was working great this way until Khaled collided with Tyler, The Creator and his Igor album.
But the costs have been going up. So Khaled pivoted. Gone are the long lineup of stars on one track. In their place is something different; punchier groupings.
For “Wild Thoughts,” he put Rihanna in a different bag alongside Bryson Tiller, ushering her to the forefront with a vocal performance that was more rap and with a spunky flow. For Drake, Khaled provides fertile ground to reinforce his rap bonafides while he experiments with other sounds on his own projects. Same for Jay-Z and Beyonce. Meanwhile a record like “You Say” serves as a platform for Lil Baby to catapult from and it gives J Balvin more U.S. appeal. (Meek and Jeremih are always with the shits.)
It’s the high fashion version of his tried and true formula.
Everything was working great this way until Khaled’s Father of Asahd LP collided with Tyler, The Creator and his Igor album.
Father of Asahd
was Khaled’s formula redux at a time when streaming platforms were changing what was once quantified as a hit (See Carl Chery’s excellent 2019 piece, “The Formula Is Dying
.”) He swapped out Rihanna and a Santana sample for SZA and an OutKast jack. More Justin Bieber. Jay and Bey again.
Then the Odd Future founder’s quirky R&B album topped the charts over Khaled in a surprising outcome (to some). Tyler didn’t chase radio, he built his connection to his fan base by way of connections outside traditional means (his own festival, creative extensives in television, etc.). Plus his album received the type of critical acclaim that rendered him in a new light. Khaled couldn’t match that acclaim with sheer star power like the old days.
Now, DJ Khaled returns with Khaled Khaled. He’s keen on his place in the celebrity landscape. Which requires more work and the demands are much harder. To bolster the job he recruited Drake for two singles (which are still the best songs on the album). His staff is stacked with veteran label folks and Lenny S. has his A&R hat back on again.
The album is laced with familiar strategy albeit with different names and tones. This time instead of the Drake vocals coming in, it’s the Cardi B vocals. Bardi talks tough on “Big Paper,” one of the better cuts that finds the Bronx bomber spitting over a darker sound than her post-fame tracks usually possess. With a dialed back flip of Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” on “We Going Crazy,” H.E.R. lets her Yay Area pride bloom. This album’s unicorn is Justin Timberlake singing over the Jackson 5’s “Maybe Tomorrow” in a nod to Ghostface’s “All That I Got Is You.” Nas and Jay sound downright giddy (for them, at least) as they recount their earned wins on the melancholy chords of “Sorry Not Sorry.”
The point of a DJ Khaled album remains steadfastly the same: a platform to showcase Khaled’s unique construct and also a playground for artists to stretch beyond their usual confines.
How long can it last?
We’ll find out one day, just not today.