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The DJ Khaled album – Hip Hop’s All-Star Weekend

As a young NBA fan, I found myself excited whenever February came around. My favorite players joining together during All-Star Weekend to create these fantasy teams that throw crazy alley oops, make a shitload of three-pointers, and run up scores in the mid 100’s. This type of play is rarely seen during regular season games and surely not in the playoffs, so it’s a treat and more entertaining than competitive. Not to mention all the celebrities who would gather together and heighten the weekend’s experience with flashy clothing or excessive reactions to various moments.

The older I get, the more critical I am of the lack of defense and the basic offensive schemes predicated on long-range shooting. I’m not as interested in a high score that wasn’t really fought for. The dunk contest has significantly fallen off, and some dunkers opt for more flashy presentation than actual complex dunks. Not to say it’s completely bad, and some years (2018 for example) have stood out for a variety of reasons. Overall, it’s a high expectation-inducing event which often leaves fans feeling deflated and questioning the execution.

It’s crazy how parallel two things can be, and the consistent intersection of Hip-Hop and the NBA makes this piece especially fun to write. On Friday, May 17th, DJ Khaled dropped his 11th studio album Father of Asahd. 15 tracks, 54 minutes. Yet another star-studded track list that I will expand on later. Two singles in “No Brainer” and “Top Off,” out for well over a year before the album was released. The promo run was far less aggressive than usual, likely due to the untimely death of West Coast legend Nipsey Hussle and his involvement “Higher,” the moving track number seven also featuring John Legend. It is believed that was going to be another single, but out of respect for those grieving Khaled switched things up.

Now, Khaled has been a staple in the game for a while. He’s built an empire with the moves he’s made within music and as a Snapchat personality. His impact, reputation and business mind should never be spoken down upon. He is absolutely one of the biggest acts under Epic Records and has positively influenced many artists’ careers. Yet, even with this network and diverse repertoire, many people often walk away from his albums disappointed.

Opinions on him dance between “he sucks at making music,” “he can’t produce,” and “he doesn’t even make any of the music so why is his name on the album?” What this shows, as the members of the Joe Budden Podcast said in this weekend’s episode, is that people don’t understand producers and executive producers do way more than just make the beats. That conflation often leads to misinformed slander. It also shows that people may not be reading credits, and makes me a bit curious about their opinions of Metro Boomin, Swizz Beats, and a few other people releasing albums that they aren’t rapping heavily on, if at all.

Khaled’s name is on the project though, so the blame is always going to fall on him even if listeners may not necessarily have a full grasp of what exactly they are blaming him for. I put some of it on the artists as well. I don’t doubt their recognition of the opportunity they’re afforded to be on a DJ Khaled album. The energy he puts behind the promotion, the producers he brings in, the money he spends, and the likelihood of a video being made provide much spotlight. His albums are a launchpad for artists to generate excitement for their own work that may be coming later. All they really have to do is what they already do, and that is rap or sing well.

It feels to me like artists don’t take the opportunity as seriously as the impact that could be had on their careers from being involved with a Khaled hit. They kind of just do whatever. In a situation where LeBron James would normally drive to the lane and kick it out for a corner three, All-Star Weekend may find him dribbling out the shot clock and pulling up for a stepback three himself. When I listen to “Celebrate,” it doesn’t feel like something Travis Scott or Post Malone would ever put on their own albums. Trav’s autotune sounds off and pitched up too high like on “Don’t Quit” from Grateful.

Now, that annoyingly repetitive chorus with no real complexity could have been exactly what Khaled asked for. Looking at his personality, everything is huge and catchy. “We the best,” “major key,” “they don’t wanna see you win” and his other catchphrases are extremely simple yet the frequency in which he says them etches them permanently into your mind. He quite literally screams them often. Everything he does is big, and from the 11 albums we have heard, it’s clear he aims for anthems.

He gathers together the biggest names in music at the time, throws them together on tracks and tries to curate magic. Or he’ll pair a bubbling act with an OG in the game and see what they can do together. His ear and touch for people who would work well together are reputable in my eyes. I look at the tracklists, and the names I see on songs together usually make sense. The energy and effort have to come from the other side–the artists. It makes total sense that they approach a Khaled feature way differently than making their own albums. Khaled projects are like a super organized college party. After all, music is supposed to be enjoyable too, right? Even “Higher,” which drove many to tears, sounds like a song that someone would play on a graduation day.

Like All-Star Weekend’s dunk contest, three-point shootout and skills challenge, a Khaled placement where you’re thrown a “Sorry Ms. Jackson” or “Maria Maria” sample seem both fun and challenging. Building chemistry with an artist you haven’t collaborated with previously and following executive producer Asahd’s vision can land you a future feature opportunity and add another sound to your arsenal.

No shade to “Wild Thoughts” by the way. Rihanna and Bryson Tiller killed that. Shoutout to Pen Wallace, PARTYNEXTDOOR, for writing that hit. However, “Just Us” from this Friday’s record felt like a miss for the first lady of Top Dawg Entertainment. Surely SZA has the pop jam with a huge chorus in her bag, but we’ve heard that already with “All The Stars” alongside Kendrick Lamar.

Not to say the song was bad necessarily, but with a sample like that, I wasn’t happy about the direction it went. I personally would’ve liked something different, but I know it’s not up to me. I do firmly believe that the woman who murdered samples like “Summer Love” by Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes‘ “Turn Me Up Some” and “Louisiana Blues” to name a few, could have done OutKast proud in another way. Perhaps The South will have something to say again?

Are we to look at Khaled differently? He’s human like every other artist, but he’s not coming from the same place that, say, J. Cole was when he made 2014 Forest Hills Drive or Saba with Care For Me. He injects some of his personal experiences into the songs, but loud ad-libs don’t have the same effect as a full verse. He’s also not holding artists’ hands through the entire process. Surely he works with many capable writers so the blame can’t all fall on him for songs falling flat.

How can these albums be made better? There’s no one answer to that. It’s easy to say he takes his time and really listens to everything, refining every piece of the puzzle. Yet, there’s a demographic of people who feel his projects are overproduced. Another possible solution is working with different artists, but chemistry can’t be forced and the desire to make something that is both good and long-lasting has to be intrinsic. It has to come from a real place and not be forced.

Despite all of this, one monster that can’t be defeated in the wake of authenticity in your content is fans’ expectations. You see a track list with Meek Mill, Cardi B, 21 Savage, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Nas, to name a few, and I totally understand anticipating a blockbuster release. Inflated expectations leave very little tolerance for songs that don’t sound how you envisioned them or wanted them to sound. Has anyone found the cure for expectations? Let me know.

The NBA made a huge change in 2018, with the leading vote-getters in each conference being assigned captain of their respective teams and drafting their rosters. The ability to mix and match between both conferences made things very interesting when the four-headed monster in Golden State split up, Russell Westbrook ended up teaming with Kevin Durant, and Bron got to give us an early sign of what could be happening in Los Angeles when he played alongside Anthony Davis. It seemed like the fresh start made players want to compete more and the game seemed more fun. Slightly more defense was played.

What would DJ Khaled’s fresh start be? I was pleased by the shorter album as Grateful was a drag. The inclusion of J Balvin, Lil Baby, Gunna, and Cardi showed he has a clear vision of what listeners like to hear. The inclusion of Nip and Meek after the years they both had and Big Sean‘s stellar two verses in lieu of new music he has coming showed Khaled wants to give light to some of our heroes of today. The recipe was there, but the music just missed the mark.

I look forward to seeing how this project ages. It’s not often you hear people discussing how they revisited a DJ Khaled album or see them listed on year-end wrap-ups. I look forward to seeing how Khaled reacts to this project’s reception and the changes he makes next time. The lesson here is proper preparation is key, but proper execution is not guaranteed. Maybe Khaled ought to call Drake and Kendrick, have them pick a team of rappers and make their own projects from which he takes songs and curates his own. I might be on to something.

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