Album Review: DJ Khaled – Major Key

Major Key is DJ Khaled’s ninth studio album in 10 years, and it’s undoubtedly his best. Depending where you stand on the Khaled spectrum, that may mean nothing or everything.

No one could have predicted the trajectory of DJ Khaled except Khaled himself. Well before he ascended to Snapchat stardom in his soy milk-and-cocoa-butter’d glory, he was a local Miami radio DJ pushing brand-worthy catchphrases (“Listennn…”; “We the best!”) and promoting unity and self-belief with a persistence that was as endearing as it was annoying. His bombastic statements seemed to be a nod to his reggae soundclash bonafides, but it was actually a ‘hood-oriented manifestation gospel. Khaled wasn’t just beating his chest, he was willing his success to existence—comparing himself to his apparent betters such as Quincy Jones and Russell Simmons; later he placed himself alongside icons like Jay Z and Kanye West in a way that suggested good-natured delusions of grandeur. It started as cute and laughable, but it quickly became clear that Khaled was justifying his place in the big leagues with a succession of hits—to the point that, when he claimed that “All I Do Is Win,” it was hard to disagree with him.

Khaled’s ascent is one of the most remarkable in the past decade of hip-hop history: He started as a bit player in Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, but has outlived (and maintained) that association to become a living meme, motivational figure, and controller of culture nonpareil. He may not have the cachet of the people he regularly rubs shoulders with, but he often transcends them with the depth of his connections and the breadth of his reach. He helped reestablish Miami as a creative export factory and has been instrumental in the rise of just about every notable commercially successful hip-hop movement that has popped up since 2006. It’s hard to imagine the prominence of Rick Ross’ MMG, Drake’s OVO, and Baby and Lil Wayne’s Cash Money and YMCMB without Khaled serving as the glue between those factions, even as they splintered and openly warred with one another. It’s been a running joke that Khaled—who has sporadic production credits, some under the alias Beat Novacane—doesn’t do more on his records than shout, but that ignores that fact that many DJs have tried their hands at compilation albums, and none have been as consistently successful at it as DJ Khaled. (For a quick comparison, one can listen to DJ Drama’s recent Quality Street Music 2; while Drama has had the golden touch with his Gangsta Grillz mixtapes, his official albums haven’t left the same footprint as Khaled’s efforts.)

Major Key is DJ Khaled’s ninth studio album in 10 years, and it’s undoubtedly his best. Depending where you stand on the Khaled spectrum, that may mean nothing or everything, but it should be noted that—its awards show lineup of guests accounted for—this is the most streamlined and focused album that he’s ever masterminded. Yes, he still swings for the fences too hard and too often, but he’s also become a more well-rounded player. The first five tracks of Major Key—featuring, Jay Z, Future, Drake, Nas, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole—are the shrewd mix of some of the most respected craftsmen and hitmakers of the past 20 years and past 20 weeks alike. Sometimes, these songs work only because of Khaled: “I Got the Keys” is a sub-par Jay Z song and an okay Future song, but somehow emerges as a great Khaled song. It’s not a number either artist would make on their own, or together without Khaled, whose motivational “special talk” peppers both stars’ verses.

Some songs seem to have nothing to do with Khaled. Nas—over a filtered Fugees sample courtesy of Cool & Dre—is forensic and poetic on “Nas Album Done” about the recirculation of the Black dollar; J. Cole is characteristically vulnerable, earnest, and weary about the personal and the political over a meditative thump provided by Khaled himself (on “Jermaine’s Interlude”); on “Holy Key,” Big Sean touches on everything from race and police violence to self-help ideology to Christianity to veganism, admirably doing his best to redeem himself from his “Control (H.O.F.)” roasting, but Kendrick Lamar spazzes with a technical and vocal madness that makes a line like “hair like ODB” seem like the most important and original rhyme in history. There’s also Betty Wright taking everyone to church the way only a 62-year-old soul singer who was dropping gold records on her own record label before her collaborators could walk can, and it’s all majestic.

Major Key contains a smattering of his usual overblown numbers, which somehow sound like everything else on the radio only slightly more so. “Do You Mind” features Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, August Alsina, Jeremih, Future, and Rick Ross, making it feel longer than its five-and-a-half-minute run time, and yet it’s the perfect cookout song, in tone and temperament. “Tourist” sounds exactly like what you’d expect Lil Wayne and Travis Scott duet to sound like—druggy, garbled, and robotically melodic—but both contributors are firing on all cylinders, because no one comes to a Khaled project with a half tank.

Some numbers, pitched directly at the ignorant, misogynist, and unwoke—“Pick Those Hoes Apart,” “Fuck Up the Club,” “Work for It”—are exactly the kind of disposable songs that have littered Khaled’s past albums. They’re serviceable, but not necessary or novel. But Khaled ends on an on-brand note. If you can see Mavado’s “Progress” for the tacked-on bonus cut that it is, the album closes with “Forgive Me Father,” featuring Wiz Khalifa, Wale, and Meghan Trainor. Here, Khaled is audacious enough to try to recapture the crossover power of Wiz’s “See You Again,” allowing Trainor to over-riff with singing-the-National-Anthem-during-the-World-Series desperation, which is the only kind of thing that actually works for a song this saccharine and cloying. Khaled’s only voiced presence on this song is to calmly declare “another one,” and it’s hard to disagree with him. Like all of his albums, Major Key is a mixed bag, fitting for a maestro who traffics in a blend of chest-thumping and humility that’s both as comical as it is prophetic.

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