There’s a moment toward the end of “I’m The One,” the new DJ Khaled posse cut that is currently somehow the #1 song in the country, where Lil Wayne briefly departs from the song’s theme. The song’s theme is this: You, female listener, should fuck me, the person rapping or singing right now. That’s mostly what Wayne is talking about on his verse. But, as a quick aside, he offers this: “For the record, I knew Khaled when that boy was spinning records.” Wayne means that as a light flex and maybe as an allusion to the fact that he’s been throwing verses on DJ Khaled posse cuts for over a decade. In the video, Wayne and Khaled both indulge in a quick second of air-scratching. It’s cute. But it underlines something notable about Khaled’s success: He is no longer spinning records. The “DJ” part of his name is entirely ornamental.
So for those keeping score at home: DJ Khaled used to DJ, but he doesn’t do that anymore. Every once in a while, he used to produce tracks, but he doesn’t do that anymore, either. He doesn’t rap; he never has. He doesn’t sing or act or dance. He doesn’t even bray grating ad-libs all over his own tracks the way he once did. What Khaled does is orchestrate event-rap posse cuts and generate memes. That’s it. And he’s thriving. Khaled seems to grow more omnipresent every year, riding Snapchat hype and festival-booking dominance to the point where he now has his own #1 song — a song that only barely features his voice.
My favorite thing about Khaled’s recent saga is that he’s doing everything he possibly can to put his infant son Asahd into the public eye. He’s even got Asahd credited as an executive producer on Grateful, the album he’s putting together. Asahd doesn’t actually do anything as an executive producer. He can’t. He’s a baby. Instead, at least as I understand it, he acts as a sort of readymade inspirational mascot. But then, “readymade inspirational mascot” is also basically Khaled’s own job description. That means DJ Khaled now has his own DJ Khaled, and DJ Khaled’s DJ Khaled is a tiny baby.
Khaled’s rise, and his continuing presence, is a ridiculous and weirdly charming story, especially for a guy who doesn’t really do anything. In a Week In Pop column last year, our own Chris DeVille traced the outlines of his long rise. Khaled started out working at a record store, became a DJ in Miami, and eventually joined Fat Joe’s Terror Squad after producing a few tracks for him. If you dive deep into early-’00s rap arcana, you’ll see a lot of Khaled, lurking silently in the background of things like the “Lean Back” video or the movie Shottas.
But I didn’t become aware of Khaled until 2006, when his posse cut “Holla At Me” made the rounds. I loved “Holla At Me,” which had Lil Wayne and Paul Wall and Fat Joe and Rick Ross and Pitbull all going in over a sample of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Looking For The Perfect Beat.” None of them were trying all that hard. Paul, for instance, talked about how immigration was harassing him (even though he’s a white guy) and promised to leave a girl’s back “all nutted like Almond Joy.” Honestly, Pitbull probably had the best verse on the whole thing, which means that Pitbull can tell his grandkids that he once outrapped peak-era Lil Wayne. But the totality of it was exciting. It had an energy to it. And while I don’t know how much Khaled can really take credit for that energy, it’s been there on a lot of the tracks that have borne his name.
Around the time 2007 Akon/T.I./Rick Ross/Fat Joe/Birdman/Lil Wayne collab “We Takin’ Over” came out, my friend Ryan Dombal interviewed Khaled, I think for Blender. Ryan asked Khaled about his ad-libs, the shit he would yell on his songs whenever anyone wasn’t rapping, and Khaled tried to make the point that all his self-promotional bellowing was really important to his songs. That was a lie, or maybe it was a delusion. (One of the best things that happened on the 2007 internet was that Wayne’s Da Drought 3 mixtape leaked before Khaled had time to shout his shit all over it.) But “We Takin’ Over,” even more than “Holla At Me,” was a great song, propulsive and joyous, all these rising stars projecting charisma all over the place. Wayne’s closing verse — “Gah! I am the beast! Feed me rappers or feed me beats!” — is one of the great iconic lines of Wayne’s destroying-everyone moment. And in the video, Khaled drives a convertible backwards during a police chase and then zooms off in Fat Joe’s speedboat.
That’s how it’s been for Khaled ever since: All these triumphal anthems about money and dominance, stocked with whichever rappers were bubbling at the moment. For a while, Khaled’s tracks tended to be sparkling Miami synth-rap, but as that sound faded, Khaled adjusted, somehow keeping that energy intact. A song like “All I Do Is Win” will endure as long as there are sporting events, or as long as there are DJs who like to see people’s hands all go up in unison. But when Drake made moody, disconsolate rap into the genre’s mainstream, Khaled was right there. He’s the one who gets to put his name on 2011’s “I’m On One,” which remains one of Drake’s best singles. And before “I’m The One,” Khaled’s last real hit was last year’s “For Free,” which was really just a Drake solo track. Khaled presumably got the song because it didn’t fit in with the rest of Drake’s Views, but it was also a better song than pretty much anything on Views.
And that brings us to “I’m The One,” which is probably the crowning achievement of Khaled’s career, since he managed to stoke anticipation and coast on assembled starpower to the point where the song debuted at #1. But also: “I’m The One” is a good song! Maybe that’s weird to say about a track where the highlight is a Justin Bieber hook that involves something that could be described as yodeling. But “I’m The One” gets the job done. Quavo and Chance The Rapper and Wayne aren’t doing their best work on the song, but their best isn’t what the song demands. Instead, they’re there to bring breezy charm to the proceedings, and all of them oblige. The beat is an airy, weightless twinkle, one that nods toward the recent dancehall and afrobeats waves without ever drowning in either of them. When I was driving to and from seeing The Fate Of The Furious last week, it was the only song I wanted to hear. It sounds like summer, and when you’re releasing a big song a few weeks before Memorial Day, that’s a good way to sound.
Did it take talent to orchestrate something like “I’m The One”? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Certainly, it took charm and timing and planning. It took instinct, which might be DJ Khaled’s superpower. For more than a decade, he’s been in the right place at the right time, with the right people around him. And in the entire history of rap music, how many people can say the same? It’s a short list. And if Khaled had anything that we could conventionally describe as talent — if he was still, say, spinning records — would he even still be around?
1. Husalah – “M.O.B.”
A long-absent Bay Area cult hero returns, breathlessly riding a Young L beat that sounds someone taught R2D2 how to become supremely funky. Even as Silicon Valley slowly swallows the entire Bay Area, its rappers are among our most commendably weird.
2. RJ – “Brackin”
It says something about how quickly rap moves that 2011-style Mustardwave now seems hopelessly retro. But on a song as nasty as this one, it’s the good kind of retro.
3. Meek Mill – “Left Hollywood”
Meek was in dire need of a street-rap retrenchment, and here it is, explicitly branded as such. And yet it feels entirely genuine, a hard and emotional remembrance of struggles past. When you rap like Meek Mill, you can’t really get away with pulling cynical career moves, anyway, can you?
4. Mozzy & Gunplay – “They Know”
Two cult-favorite hard-snarlers are teaming up for a collaborative mixtape that almost makes too much sense. I can’t say I’d ever imagined this conversation, but listening to this first track, it’s like: What took you so long?
5. Shabazz Palaces – “30 Clip Extension”
So it turns out that Shabazz Palaces are releasing two whole new albums on one day this summer, and judging by first singles, the second is going to be some wiry, damaged electro, one that Mike Ladd’s Majesticons project. Sign me up!
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Macklemore: [walks into party]
Future: shit it's Macklemore, everyone hide your lean!
Macklemore: you are all in VERY big trouble!
— Matt the Little Boy (@ComunityCollege) May 5, 2017