What makes a hit record soar? Is it vibrant melodies and impactful lyrics syncing up with driving, anthemic production? Is it the world-beating verve of a hungry new artist with a unique history and perspective? Is it the comforting voice of a household name or the familiarity of a beloved, time-tested melody reinterpreted for modern times? Is it all just chemistry, the careful mixing and matching of star power? These questions seem crucial to understanding the career path of DJ Khaled, the Palestinian American South Florida radio personality turned mogul, advertiser, and influencer who, 15 years ago this spring, dived into the business of star-studded rap compilations with 2006’s Listennn … The Album and never looked back. Khaled records carry on the same traditions as old DJ Clue and Kid Capri tapes and the tie-in soundtracks to films like Friday or Romeo Must Die, where an executive producer leverages their relationships with talented performers in order to hip the public to music that might not otherwise see release. Rappers make much more music than what we hear once or twice a year when a proper project drops. The enterprising compilation curator excels at coaxing artists into liberating gems from the vault or composing new music around a theme, and this sometimes results in classics like Romeo Must Die’s Aaliyah and DMX hit “Come Back in One Piece.”
Now, with a fertile ecology of leaks sourced by hacks and files swiped out of studios, and with the curator class being poached by streaming services to pump out themed playlists, there isn’t as much of a drive to concoct commercial releases to house potent loosies from famous stars. (They can just drop a “pack” or a compilation of their own. Drake’s 2019 Care Package debuted at No. 1 with songs we all had on hard drives for years. Why give these records to someone else? They’d have to be charming.) Khaled isn’t the last guy carrying the torch for DJ-themed albums, but he is the most vocal and entertaining, the one angling for the biggest fish and, more often than not, hooking his catch. Khaled albums are a lot like class photographs in a high-school yearbook. Play through releases like Listennn and subsequent ones like 2011’s We the Best Forever or 2013’s Suffering From Success and you watch dynasties rise and fall. You see the young and hungry Drake of Victory’s “Fed Up” turn into the unflappable hitmaker of “I’m on One” and “No New Friends.” You see Kendrick Lamar evolve from the jarring tenacity of “They Ready” to the regal arrogance of “Holy Key.” You watch Future grow from the hook guy belting out the two-note chorus of “Bitches & Bottles” to the showstopping rhymer of “I Don’t Play About My Paper.” Khaled’s catalogue tracks the trek from the blustery, EDM-adjacent workout music of the mid-aughts to the elaborate array of trap and R&B hybrids currently dominating charts. Khaled weathers these changes by remaining unchanging and affable. The job is to always be affiliated with the right stars, active on the most popular apps, creating the best catchphrases, and collaborating with the right brands, and Khaled has done it all with glee and an unnatural ease.
Building a following as on-air talent at South Florida’s hip-hop station 99 Jamz (and producing during his tenure with Fat Joe’s Terror Squad as “Beat Novacane”), DJ Khaled bet his kingdom on connections and virality, and he has had no trouble adapting to the era where who you know and how much noise you’re able to make online determine how much success you have on the charts. The garrulous personality, the faithful positivity, and the seemingly bottomless thirst for self-promotion have been there all along; watch a 27-year-old Khaled explaining his job to a UPN reporter in 2002, and watch the same man talking through his motivations with Larry King 12 years later, and the only differences are a few grays, a few pounds, and a dollop of paranoia. He understands that he is a brand and his friendships are his best-selling product. He gets that his purpose is to get you feeling good and to obscure the amount of toil going into this, while assuring you that he is the mastermind directly responsible for it all. “I’m, like, the Berry Gordy, the Quincy Jones of hip-hop,” he told King. He’s not; Gordy knew to leave the vocals to the vocalists, and Jones’s raw talent arguably outstrips several of the greats he produced for. Listen to We Global’s “Standing on the Mountain Top” and it’s apparent Khaled is not a rapper. Scan the credits of an album and it’s not entirely clear when and if he’s making the beats. If you’ve been to a Khaled concert, you know that the DJ brings a different DJ to spin while he entertains the crowd. Khaled is perhaps better understood as a producer in the classic sense — a fixer, really — such that he can be said to have direct influence on the making of the songs that populate his albums. We know he was instrumental in getting Rihanna on “Wild Thoughts.” We do not see the G.O.O.D. Music classic “Grammy Family” or the Drake smashes as belonging to Khaled.
What almost undisputedly belongs to DJ Khaled is the limitless bombast of delightfully overstuffed posse cuts like “I’m So Hood,” “Brown Paper Bag,” “All I Do Is Win,” “Out Here Grindin’,” and “We Takin’ Over,” cross-regional anthems that landed at a time when the South and the Midwest had proven just as capable of producing talent as the East and West Coasts. Like an unexpectedly lively awards-show pairing or a spicy comic-book crossover, classic Khaled posse cuts were both expressions of the endless versatility of rap music (and, by extension, the vastness of the experiences of the communities creating it) and the ability of the marquee personality to stay in the mix and in the know. This type of record peaked with Kanye West’s maximalist My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and went belly-up later on an overabundance of stacked event records whose teams didn’t gel, terrible experiments like the Suicide Squad soundtrack’s “Sucker for Pain,” which inexplicably united Lil Wayne, Logic, Imagine Dragons, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, and X Ambassadors. The “more is better” philosophy powering songs like Jay-Z’s “Swagga Like Us,” Chris Brown’s “Deuces” remixes, and Drake, Wayne, Kanye, and Eminem’s “Forever” began to dim. Big-deal early-to-mid-2010s Khaled-sponsored celeb summits like “I Wanna Be With You” and “They Don’t Love You No More” missed Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart entirely. A new class of stars arose while the core cast of characters in Khaled’s albums stuck to Florida-based veterans Birdman, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Ace Hood. The two-pronged solution to this problem is as much a reason we’re still talking about Khaled in 2021 as indelible moments like the night, a little over five years ago, when he got lost while Jet Skiing after dark or his enduring mastery of promotion and social media.
Following the creative and commercial nadir of 2015’s I Changed a Lot, DJ Khaled began to cast a wider net for talent, peppering pop stars and younger rappers into the usual blend of chest-beating rap songs, anthemic R&B joints, and obligatory dancehall spotlights. He also started leaning into the notion that he is a legacy act, relying on the rush of familiar samples to give songs an added push. With 2017’s Grateful, results were immediate. Calling Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper for “I’m the One” netted Khaled his first “Hot 100” No. 1; setting Rihanna vocals to a remake of Carlos Santana’s international hit “Maria Maria” produced the multiplatinum No. 1 “Wild Thoughts.” The past few DJ Khaled albums have produced modern updates to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” (the SZA banger “Just Us”); Jodeci’s “Freek’n You” (Wayne and Gunna’s “Freak N You”); Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” (via the Ross, Gucci Mane, and Kodak Black team-up “Pull a Caper”); and more.
In spite of its merits, this spring’s new Khaled Khaled, his 12th album, is almost cynically nostalgic. You come across bits of Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City” and “Song Cry,” Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know,” Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” Beanie Sigel’s “Feel It in the Air,” Ghostface and Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Got Is You,” Biggie’s “Long Kiss Goodnight,” Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” (via a nod to the chorus the Marley song famously borrowed from dancehall vet Ini Kamoze’s “World-a-Reggae”), and Shyne’s “Bad Boyz” (via a guest spot from dancehall legend Barrington Levy, whose “Here I Come” was memorably repurposed for younger listeners in the 2000 Bad Boy anthem).
Sampling, and revisiting sample flips from older hit records, is ancient business, but rarely has a modern mainstream rap record steeped itself this deeply in the sound of the past. It’s tough to tell whether Khaled sees himself as a bridge between generations, and pairing stars in their 20s with hooks and melodies the same age as them is merely a newer permutation of the thrill of seeing what happens when you ask rappers from all over the country to write to the same beat. But on Khaled Khaled, it seems like we’re just trying to bottle and repackage the lightning caught on “Wild Thoughts.” There’s an undeniable commercial savvy to the guest list, but also a trace of formula. The right people were called, but Khaled Khaled doesn’t know what to do with them. H.E.R. and the Migos make an amusingly offbeat match in “We Going Crazy,” and mixing the horns most listeners would attribute to “Dey Know” with a hook that reminds millennials of “Jamrock” makes for an intriguing twist. Hearing Justin Timberlake’s take on Ghostface and Mary pissed people off. The unspoken rule with samples is that you make your mark, and you pay your OGs, and you float. On Khaled Khaled, though, the beats write humongous checks the vocals aren’t always cashing.
Barring “Let It Go,” a Bieber and 21 Savage collaboration better suited to Changes or the feistier Justice bonus tracks, and “Sorry Not Sorry,” the Jay-Z and Nas duet that boasts gorgeous vocals from Beyoncé and James Fauntleroy (but also carries enough of a hint of “Song Cry” to make you pine for the god MC’s more godlike Blueprint album), not a lot here feels essential. You’ll come back to Cardi B’s cool, conceited “Big Paper,” to Drake’s killer Weeknd impression on “Greece,” to Jeremih passionately outlining his brush with death last year on the album opener, “Thankful,” but will you sit down to give Khaled Khaled a second, or even a third, hour of your time after the first? It doesn’t matter what you do with it, as the boost from two platinum Drake singles released last summer was enough to guarantee this album a spot near the top of the charts — to the extent that this thing was revealed only days before release, breaking a long-standing DJ Khaled tradition of annoying us to death for weeks when he’s got something to sell — and the attention Bardi Gang has brought “Big Paper” is added stimulus. All you need to land a marginally successful album nowadays is one or two such chart draws; all you need to do to have a hit is stick in the head of the listener, and Khaled Khaled does this … in a fashion. Listen and in a week you might catch yourself humming bits of “Long Kiss Goodnight” or the horns from “Dey Know.” But will you remember why?
If you forget the album, maybe you’ll catch the new Dolce & Gabbana collab. If D&G’s too pricey, maybe you’ll like whatever alcohol he’s pushing. If sobriety’s your thing, maybe you’ll stumble on a funny TikTok video or an extravagant Instagram shot. Wherever you reside on the internet, DJ Khaled will find you.