Khaled can get a feature from virtually anyone he wants, but that won’t fix overproduced and emotionless tracks.
From the beginning, DJ Khaled’s albums were bloated, overly A&Red affairs with fealty to major label favor-trades and the whims of pop radio above all else. Some critics and fans have longed for the days when the former Miami radio DJ threaded more Floridian texture through these releases; it’s true that Trick Daddy, Trina, Plies, Rick Ross, Pitbull et al. made regular appearances across Khaled’s first several LPs. But relatively early in his career as the industry’s foremost compilation peddler, Khaled began shunting this local specificity onto posse cuts — see 2007’s overstuffed “Bitch I’m From Dade County” — and building the albums to climaxes like that same year’s “New York,” which tapped Ja Rule, Jadakiss, and Fat Joe. The title of his third album, 2008’s We Global, is a bleak statement of purpose: to be ubiquitous by default, durable through inoffensiveness and inertia.
Khaled has largely achieved this. Prior to this year, nine of his 12 albums had debuted at No. 8 or higher on the Billboard 200, with three of the last four opening at No. 1. But that recent spike in album charting, which stretches back to 2016, coincides with two other notable shifts: the clocking of streaming numbers for charting purposes and a dearth of truly relevant hits. Imprecise as Billboard often is as a tool for measuring what music is and is not connecting with audiences, this is a case where the data matches the truth: Khaled’s records are inescapable in a flimsily algorithmic sense, not because anyone is particularly passionate about them.
There are no more genuine rap radio hits like “We Takin’ Over,” “I’m So Hood,” “Out Here Grindin,” or “I’m On One.” In 2017, he lobbed hail marys with “I’m the One” and “Wild Thoughts.” But in this decade, his highest charting singles are Drake songs called “Popstar,” “Greece,” and this summer’s “Staying Alive”; where some songs work on mix shows and others in nightclubs, these seem designed primarily to succeed in lazy Spotify searches. (If you don’t think 2021’s Justin Bieber and 21 Savage collaboration — Justin Bieber and 21 Savage collaboration — “Let It Go” was so titled in hopes of catching errant Frozen searches, I have some junior executives at Epic eager to take credit for the idea.) In 2019, after Father of Ashad was denied the No. 1 Billboard slot by Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR, Khaled lashed out, calling Tyler’s record “mysterious music” unlike his own, which he claimed was on perpetual loop in barbershops and passing cars. It wasn’t; Tyler, himself one of the biggest celebrities in music, won a Grammy.
The other thing to note about DJ Khaled’s albums is that they’re extremely bad. He has evidently garnered a tremendous amount of goodwill with A-list and nearly A-list stars — the kind of goodwill that secures you a consistent stream of scraps deemed too minor or too nakedly desperate for inclusion on a real LP by the artist in question. Where they used to feel part of a particular aesthetic school (think of the digital maximalism by rap producers like The Runners in the late 2000s), they now sound both gaudily expensive and totally amateurish, the product of studio musicians and apprentice producers recreating better beats in hopes of tricking passive listeners into conflating the two in their heads. Remember those polyphonic ringtones you could buy around the time “We Takin’ Over” was big, the ones that turned “What You Know” or “Walk It Out” into something a Motorola RAZR would conceivably think up on its own? That’s how it sounds when, to take one example, Khaled has Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” recreated as a throwaway Migos and H.E.R. collaboration, as he did on last year’s Khaled Khaled. He has his very patient celebrity fans rap and sing over “Layla,” over “Heart of the City,” over “Ms. Jackson,” over and over and over.
His new album, God Did, is less reliant on this cynical brand of sampling but every bit as chintzily overproduced. The Eminem-featuring remix of Kanye West’s “Use This Gospel” credits five producers, including Dr. Dre and Timbaland, and comes out sounding like it should have been in that video game where G-Unit is turned into a military contractor. Beats by TM88 and Tay Keith are overlaid with stock string arrangements straight out of a Dolby Digital bumper ad; the StreetRunner-helmed “Way Past Luck” — one of two songs on which 21 Savage, who usually sounds muted but focused, instead reads as downright bored — singlehandedly calls into question the wisdom of all soul sampling. Several songs have their vocals mired in inexplicably muddy mixes, an unjustifiable choice given the hyperclarity of the C-grade instrumentals.
One of the most shocking things about God Did is that it technically clocks in under an hour — this thing feels absolutely interminable. Eminem’s robotic rapping on the Kanye remix proves to be almost as animated as things get: 21 Savage, as mentioned, sounds half-asleep, while Lil Baby (“Staying Alive”) turns in his rare non-showstopping guest verse. Quavo and Takeoff deliver none of the whimsical absurdity you’d expect from a riff on Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time”; Travis Scott and Don Toliver are at their most faux-prestige boilerplate on “Let’s Pray”; Drake might as well have turned in a voice memo for “No Secret,” the 47-second intro that exists primarily so that Drake’s name is at the top of the tracklist. The album’s bright spots are brief flashes: the posthumous Juice WRLD song, distasteful title (“Juice WRLD DID”) and all, is a tremendously engaged vocal performance, and Future is at his simultaneous most absurd (“Rainbow Audemar, 'cause my bitch bisexual”) and knowingly codependent (“Almost went to therapy but you was all I needed”) in his pair of appearances.
Like its predecessors, God Did lacks an organic hit. But it did have a news-aggregation ace up its sleeve with its title track, which features a four-minute Jay-Z verse that received its own media blitz. The sheer grandiosity has seemed to be blinding: The verse received rapturous praise despite being entirely shapeless except for its circular returns to the stove, more concerned with rote corporate bullshit than even many of the diminishing-returns verses Jay has rattled off over the past decade. (The best verse on the song is actually Wayne’s tidy 16: “Everybody replicate me, ni**a, face facts/Dreadlocks, face tats, I'm the apex.”) But perhaps that’s appropriate for a DJ Khaled album, where the sole expectation seems to be simply showing up.