DJ Khaled Delivers His Most Star-Studded Collection yet With ‘Khaled Khaled’
Given pop music’s current (and quite possibly irreversible) obsession with singles, DJ Khaled might be one of the few artists capable of getting listeners to buy a full-length album. Almost no one else working today enlists more top-level talent on every — and that does mean every — song, and as a producer those guests typically attract the majority of the spotlight. Can you tell the difference between a song produced by Khaled featuring Cardi B, and a Cardi B song from her own album that Khaled produced? Not only is he counting on the answer being ‘no,’ he’s guaranteed that it is; and so his latest long-player, “Khaled Khaled,” arrives with the marquee wattage of an awards show red carpet celebrating hip-hop music’s most popular, consistent, and/or irresistible acts, offering one future chart topper after another even if the greater achievement for him here comes less as an artist than a ringleader.
The top-heavy nature of these tracks makes it difficult to assess whether or not Khaled is actually a good producer; he can absolutely wrangle talent, but even with A-listers, he still sometimes misses the mark. (A good example is his 2018 single “Top Off,” featuring no less than Jay-Z, Beyonce and Future, which somehow manages to use them all poorly.) Opening with “Thankful,” Khaled makes like a latter-day Sean Combs, repurposing the same Bobby “Blue” Bland sample that Jay-Z did literally 20 years ago on “The Blueprint,” but turning it into a symphony of new instrumentation as Jeremih and Lil Wayne champion resilience and gratitude with equal dexterity (“Sit down, be thankful / Big smile although it’s painful”). Featuring Lil Baby and Lil Durk, “Every Chance I Get” is an inauspicious follow-up, however, featuring less of the spiritual uplift (not to mention the musical personality) of the opener, with a repetitive, mechanical beat.
Given Khaled’s last-minute change to the track listing, “Big Paper” was either meant to be a surprise for fans or something that truly came together in the final stages of recording, but everything Cardi B touches right now is gold, and when she’s in hater-slaying mode, she’s unstoppable. Here, she trades confrontational sexuality for a scorched-earth breakdown of her own ascent (“I was broke in the Bronx, but a bitch never hated / Had to get my weight up, so I patiently waited”) and the heel-nipping aspirations of her competitors (“I son bitches, movе Kulture out the car seat / Got thеse hoes nervous, I can spit it to their heartbeat”). Meanwhile, H.E.R. and especially Migos’ staccato style perfectly suits the classic reggae vibes on “We Going Crazy,” leading into a sample/rework of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” on “I Did It” that forms a little 1970s section on the record that works more often than not.
Notwithstanding Post Malone’s underwhelming contribution to the chorus, Megan Thee Stallion and DaBaby both deliver blistering verses — they know the stakes for getting a track like this on the radio — while Lil Baby’s work is slightly less memorable. “Let It Go” features Justin Bieber and 21 Savage, but the track is filler; Khaled rebounds slightly with “Body in Motion,” as Bryson Tiller’s chorus ties together verses by Lil Baby and Roddy Rich. But what quickly becomes clear is how Khaled aims for quantity over quality, aggressively packing songs with guest stars both to increase their profile but also prevent any one artist from getting too much recording time. Because these backing tracks are mostly interchangeable, it doesn’t seem like Khaled has the time, much less the skill, to tailor his work to suit the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the artists he works with, which also renders the end result fairly generic among the repertoires of their own discographies. Conversely, his own lyrical contributions — such as an outro on “Body in Motion” where he says “Baby, you’re gorgeous / You’re incredible / You’re beautiful / You’re phenomenal” — feel included more to generate a songwriting credit than actually materially add to the tone or subject of the song.
That said, Drake gets two tracks to Cardi B’s one, and “Popstar” is the better of the two. Though it’s sadly not a tribute to the film of the same name, Drake saves his feelings for “Greece” later on the album as he offers yet another treatise on the benefits, and challenges, of being a superstar (“I’m a popstar, but this shit ain’t bubblegum / You would probably think my manager is Scooter Braun / But my manager with twenty hoes in Budokan”) over a menacing, catchy beat. “This Is My Year” feels like a Spider-Man pointing meme moment on the album as Khaled enlists Puff Daddy for vamps in between verses from A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Big Sean and Rick Ross, bridging the gap between the first generation of hip-hop producer impresarios and the current one.
Nas and Jay-Z, former rivals turned into rap music’s aging keep-the-peace godfathers, team up with singer James Fauntleroy on “Sorry Not Sorry” (with harmonic support from Beyonce way, way in the back of the mix), and even if it’s one of the best tracks on the record, it’s mostly because it sounds like an old song from one or the other of them from their heyday. But “Just Be” featuring Justin Timberlake feels like an act of musical contrition, three years after an album that by his previous standards precipitously flopped, and a handful of apologies for past behavior (including to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson) that only seemed to generate more hostility to the onetime industry leader. Singing “I’m getting on my own way / ‘Cause these days I ain’t tryna complicate things / My heart’s in the right place / I’m settin’ my intentions, manifestin’ good change,” he seems desperate to regain his standing, show inner peace and promote positivity, but the Jackson 5 “Maybe Tomorrow” sample underneath his reflections make it all seem very calculated.
“Greece” might appeal to fans of Drake’s singing, but for fans of his rapping, it’s little more than a stopgap before the album closer, “Where You Come From,” a dancehall showcase featuring Buju Banton, Capleton, Bounty Killer and Barrington Levy. Building on Levy’s own “Here I Come” not unlike Shyne’s “Bad Boys” did two decades ago, Khaled strips the beat down to a skeleton and lets the rappers trade verses on a track that will test car stereos’ bottom ends but otherwise provides an unsatisfying close to “Khaled Khaled.” That it doesn’t feature a Khaled tag at the very end is baffling, but ultimately, what it reveals is that Khaled is more of a one-man “Now! That’s What I Call Hip-Hop” than a sonic architect or even curator, assembling artists with little regard for flow, on track or across a record, to create maximum playability but minimum impact. As indicated above, there are a few standouts on DJ Khaled’s latest album, but ultimately its title, though inspired by his name, reveals more about his style than his actual identity: when in doubt, give the listener twice as much as they need. “Another one” is not just a punch line or a DJ tag in his music; it’s a methodology. And yet somehow, his “too much” still adds up to not enough.
“Khaled Khaled” releases April 30 on Apple Music.