Despite its title, "I Changed A Lot" is exactly the type of album we've come to expect from DJ Khaled.
In DJ Khaled's eyes, he's the hip hop version of George Clooney in "Ocean's 11": a wily veteran with the connections and know-how necessary to bring together a formidable team of specialists. He constructs albums featuring members of his inner circle (with Rick Ross playing Matt Damon's role, Lil Wayne as Brad Pitt) performing alongside legends (Jadakiss as Carl Reiner) and hot new talent (Fetty Wap's vocal gymnastics make him a natural fit as the Chinese acrobat, Yen). Each time, it's almost the exact same mission-- if you equate pulling off a huge heist with topping the charts-- but fresh sounds and new characters keep audiences coming back for more.
Considering that Khaled's persona involves an almost comical amount of ego, though, his own envisioning of his career may not be the most accurate. Instead, let's think of him as the rap game Michael Bay. The director has pretty much one speed-- action-packed blockbuster-- and although the casts of his films aren't usually as chock full of stars as the "Ocean's" series, perhaps the expensive, frequently-occurring explosions he favors are better parallels for the seconds-long guest verses that pepper Khaled's music. Every unveiling of a tracklist is a trailer that promises pyrotechnics, every album a July 4th-weekend opening. Both men seem to have little care for depth or complexity, and Khaled explaining his album's "concept" would probably resemble Bay attempting to plan a real-life military strike. Hell, Khaled's latest album's artwork even doubles as an ad for his new food chain, again putting him in the same class as Bay, a record-breaking master of product placement.
I Changed A Lot, which is effectively subtitled with the Miami address of one such Finga Licking location, is another seemingly random collection of bright, of-the-moment beats, song titles that could double as all-caps Instagram captions and featured artist pairings that are awards show-level weird. Nearly every track sounds designed to slide seamlessly into 2015 radio rotation, with Khaled's finger-on-the-pulse updates on each ensuing album's sonic framework now just as predictable as a yearly increase on your salary due to inflation. Sure enough, I Changed A Lot begins by pulling the same trick that Meek Mill and The Game did on their recent albums: featuring Future on a track that sounds, well, exactly like a Future track. This being Khaled though, he does it three times in the first four songs. As the Atlanta star predicted earlier this year on "Never Gon' Lose," his formula is a winning one, and even despite top-shelf Metro Boomin and Southside beats being replaced with We The Best store-brand ones from Beat Bully and Reazy Renegade, they're among the best tracks on the album. Opener "I Don't Play About My Paper" is especially satisfying, pairing an incendiary hook with a Rick Ross verse that might be the album's best. Not since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's "Devil In A Red Dress" has Rozay stood out in a crowded tracklist with vivid bars like this:
"Rich nigga rituals, Rolls Royces and residuals
Residue in my residence, Revenue was so plentiful
Rumors Rozay still be runnin' with all you criminals
Ransom notes and repercussions follow my ridicule"
The Miami rapper's luxury-minded lyrics have always gelled well with the glossy sheen of Khaled's music, and somewhat surprisingly, Future cuts back on his harrowing tales of addiction, so we don't end up with WATTBA-style emotional disconnect between collaborators. At five songs apiece, they're the album's most active guests, and beyond that, its MVPs. They both manage to let their personalities and distinct sounds shine through with much greater clarity than guests like Ace Hood and Chris Brown, who might as well be billed as "Khaled's friend who can rap really well" and "Khaled's friend who can sing really well." As additions for people who can't stand auto-tuned mumbling and rapping that's not as traditionally #BARS-oriented, they serve their purposes; as soon as they step out of those comfort zones (Brown's choppily rapped verse on "How Many Times" and Hood's barely-there hook on "I Ain't Worried"), it's a disaster.
MMG underlings French Montana and Meek Mill make standup supporting actors on the album, both being typecast into their comfort zones but still thriving within them. Montana's hooks are the embodiment of laughing on the deck of a yacht while pouring champagne on supermodels, aiding Khaled in his ongoing quest to turn seemingly depressing statements like "They Don't Love You No More" into celebrations (see also: "No New Friends"). Meek's always seemed somewhat like Ace Hood's more charismatic cousin, and his hearty helpings of pathos ("My heart dropped dropped when I seen 'em hit the corner") help give I Changed A Lot some much-needed grounding. (Side note: although he recorded his "They Don't Love You No More" verse about 18 months before the Drake beef, it's become infinitely more powerful in the aftermath.)
Then we have the character actors, dudes like Beanie Sigel who come through momentarily to give us a snapshot of their lives, leaving us to do the legwork of determining how that exactly fits into Khaled's overarching narrative. Jadakiss closes out two tracks, sounding like the dude who's tasked with hanging back and finishing the job that everyone else started, putting the final nails into the coffin with his Yonkers realness. Mavado stars in the party scene that inexplicably takes place in Jamaica, John Legend shows up as a reverend at the funeral, and Jay Z seems to show up for status alone, something like Johnny Depp's cameo in "21 Jump Street." None of these add any form of continuity, but to varying degrees of success, they elevate I Changed A Lot past the "Khaled & Friends: 2015 Edition" that it could have been.
What's most impressive about Khaled at this point is that he's been making the same album for almost a decade, and shows no signs of slowing down. Give him willing and able collaborators, some space for them to rap about the usual subjects (getting money, staying afloat in the game, thanking God, enacting double standards on women), and producers who are skilled at replicating contemporary hits, and he'll find some way to make it work. I Changed A Lot prompts us all to wonder what really has changed about Khaled's music in the last ten years, but as is the case with most aspects of his personal brand, it functions more as a self-motivational slogan than an artistic statement. Khaled will never give us a "Citizen Kane," but for those few nights a year that you want jumbo sized concessions, state-of-the-art special effects and a cast of familiar faces playing familiar roles, he's your go-to blockbuster king.