DJ Khaled continues a hot streak after his rocky start. On the packed Grateful, alongside a cadre of rap royalty young and old, the producer conjures banger after banger with excitable radio-ready rap.
DJ Khaled is the type of cat to gas up a big-boned bouncer outside LIV juuust long enough to squeak his toddler son Asahd inside its neon gates. As one of the culture's more jovial conduits of surging pop-rap, Khaled's galvanized adoring fans and happy high-fivers out of charismatic hip-hop self-help mantras and "Major Key" hashtags. On his latest album Grateful, Khaled's pushes his optimism to its limit while solidifying himself as hip-hop's central transistor in an ever widening circuitry. And if he can't convince you, the fun in Beyonce's swangin' and soaring voice on the hot single "Shining" or Rick Ross's gruff elation growl on "On Everything" is enough to pull anyone into Khaled's orbit. Say what you will, some of hip-hop's foremost vocal virtuosos sound easy and natural on Khaled's tracks and, for better or worse, Khaled puts them in the most comfortable place to succeed.
DJ Khaled is the ultimate player's coach with a story primed for tense locker room speeches--or at the very least a quick Snapchat pump-up message. That story begins with his Palestinian parents migrating to Khaled's eventual birthplace, New Orleans, Louisiana. Growing up in Nola back then (and, despite efforts to the contrary, even now) meant being inundated with Black culture from jump and DJ Khaled is no exception. After falling in love with the Arabic music his family played in his childhood home, the producer met Lil Wayne and Birdman while working at a record store and the meeting would eventually turn into a strong kinship. Years later in 2015, after Birdman fleeced the Cash Money Records crew and buried DJ Khaled's career by holding back his records, Khaled parted ways with Cash Money with the message ending with "We the best. Nothing negative, everything beautiful" and almost immediately things started to turn up. His albums I Changed A Lot and Major Key spawned hit record after hit record, dashing Khaled--and his silly adlibs and name-drops--up the charts. If Khaled's rise felt like karmic circulation, then all of his rap friends are champing at the bit to breathe rarified air. And Khaled is ever so thankful.
Grateful is a plump summer playlist that doesn't veer terribly far outside of what's poppin' on mainstream radio these days. That's not so much a diss as an acknowledgement of how Khaled's (as well as others like Mike Will Made It, Zaytoven, Metroboomin etc) influence has contributed to rap's present canon. Globe trotting, luxury rap abound on Grateful. Drake's contribution, "To the Max" carries the rapper's "global" music switch-up with furious sub drums and quick-witted production using a nicely accelerated sample of JayO's "Gus Get Em Right" and a flipped version of U.K. grunge band, T2's "Heartbroken." While Drake's fit on dance beats is still a bit shaky, the rapper allows enough space for the musicality to do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to fun--his disparate vocally-modulated chorus is simple and sparse, letting listeners time and space to shoulder-shimmy without interruption. The steamy single "Wild Thoughts" and its alluring video made us miss Rihanna's seminal vocal stylings. Though Bryson Tiller's inclusion remains a mystery--his verse is clearly the weakest and most confounding--Khaled's repurposing of Santana's classic "Maria Maria" feels a little too safe. A blah hip-hop beat and Tiller's cumbersome presence soil what's otherwise a stellar Rihanna tune.
Khaled's opening epoch is centered on his love for the beach--the album opens with the sound of waves (or maybe it's the sound of gushing jets in Asahd's jacuzzi, who can be sure?)--but once he and the homies are settled in the bungalow, rap's rising trap stars come out swinging. Travis Scott puts down the producer mantle for now and focuses in on lending his voice wholeheartedly to Khaled's project. Scott contributes to four(!) records with his best coming alongside Jeremih's dark cooing on "Don't Quit." Representing the trap constituency, Future, Migos, Rick Ross, and Kodak Black all make their singular presences felt rather vividly. Future's hook on "Whatever" is one of his best this side of HNDRXX. Future's chronic swamp vocals are so perfectly syncopated you can almost hear the beat just uttering the words to yourself--"I, got my hand flooded, I bought the whole projects / I, got my hood stuntin', this whatever." And while Thugger's squelching voice is in full sound-barrier breaking majesty, the verse falls a little flat in squashed between Rozay's short, excitable burst of a verse, Future's velvety acrobatics, and 2 Chainz punchline packed finale. At the center of these records, Khaled's production bends to fit within respective artists unique strengths--peep how the sound on "Major Bag Alert"drops out around Quavo's elongated "baaaAaag" in the chorus or the way the beat twists and turns around Jay-'s line busting, stream of rap on "Shining." Khaled knows how to make his artist glow, even if there are very few surprises to be found here.
If there is one non-fatal flaw to Grateful, it is that it should've been advertised as a double-album. This joint is long, damn near hitting the 90-minute mark over 23 songs. This would be totally fine if the sounds, scenes, and voices found within weren't so repetitive. In addition to Scott's four-track allowance, Future's granted five feature spots, while Ross and Migos each assisted on four. It's safe to say, if you're not into their converging sounds, you should steer clear. Grateful undoubtedly taps hip-hop royalty but the sheer amount of records with the same voices can get old by the midway point. Khaled does his best to switch up the moods--from the sandy frivolousness of "I'm the One" to Pusha T's and Jadakiss' heady, street-parabolic flex bars on "Good Man"--to keep us on our toes but there are too few moments where the record goes beyond expectations. Trimming down the number of recurring voices might go against Khaled's democratic posture, but sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and our attention-spans, it helps to be a little more totalitarian.
There is no shortage of small, fun moments on Grateful. Khaled's charm is magnified greatly when situated next to Chance the Rapper's childlike chorus on "I Love You So Much." The song, sort of like Khaled's record more wholly, tests the lines between cute and good. No one can deny the magnetism, but once the album starts to sound like retread, questions of Khaled's limitations are appropriately posed; can charisma and connections keep our interest in an artist who doesn't necessarily push the boundaries of sound? If Khaled's career is any suggestion, quite far. And for that Khaled has every reason to throw up his hands in hallelu.