Alright kids, time for the million dollar question: Who is DJ Khaled: Rapper? Producer? Hype man? Motivational speaker? Untouched presidential candidate (Kanye/Khaled 2020, anyone)? After years of deep analysis and think-tank discussions with top scientists, the world has given up on solving the mystery and let the former DJ of Terror Squad speak for himself. And hot damn, has it ever payed off well. The man is a mogul for everything from headphones, cell phones, and mobile phone apps, along with being one of pop culture’s most quotable cartoon characters of today. Oh yeah, and he makes music sometimes.
Major Key is the ninth studio album from Khaled, and it’s the equivalent of a summer blockbuster: lavish beats from Metro Boomin and Jake One, songs about how to be successful and what success feels like, and high-profile guests including Jay Z, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Big Sean, and more.
Like most summer blockbusters, it’s glossy outer shell is trying to hide a mostly flaccid center, but it starts with high hopes. Opening banger “I Got the Keys” features a swirling 808 Mafia beat and Jay Z more woke than he’s been since Watch the Throne. “How we still slaves in 2016” is a surprisingly appropriate lyric in a song that’s mostly about Jay keeping bags of cash coming as often as possible and Future only wanting to talk “Wraith talk.”
The Drake guest spot, “For Free,” is a brief pit-stop about good sex and how he’s giving it out better than anyone (“I was never gon’ chat what we talkin’ about / You the only one I know could fit it all in her mouth”). Nas comes in with legend status on “Nas Album Done,” biting into bars like it’s his last meal (“Start a label, run it, sign yourself/ That’s a major key”). It’s truly amazing how after two decades of changing rap flavors and Nas can turn any beat into a Nas song.
“Holy Key” turns usual-goofball Big Sean into political activist (“Father help us, police doing target practice with real bodies / Mommas in the streets, crying, standing over a still body / Doctor King meet Dr. Dre / Except this doctor lost all his patience.”).
Sean, of all people, actually beats out Kendrick friggin’ Lamar on the track despite Kendo’s solid if not exceptional verse on spiritualism (“I don’t wear crosses no more, Yeshua’s coming back / I ain’t scared of losses no more, I see life in that”). But it’s hard to notice either of them with Betty Wright’s over-performance singing the hook. J. Cole makes a damn great impression on “Jermaine’s Interlude” that should’ve been longer than 3 minutes, while “Ima Be Alright” finds a match made in trap heaven with Bryson Tiller and Future. As for Khaled, he pops up every now and then to say “bless up” or “major key,” so clearly he puts in effort.
The problem with Major Key is that it takes a major nosedive halfway through, starting with the flaccid slow jam, “Do You Mind.” Nicki Minaj is a blip on the track that doesn’t get to have any fun while the singing of Chris Brown, August Alsina, and Jeremih sound too similar to differentiate. “Pick These Hoes Apart” features Kodack Black, Jeezy, and French Montana sounding half-asleep, a delivery repeated by Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Gucci Mane on “Work for It.”
The last gasp for air comes from “Don’t Ever Play Yourself” thanks to New York legends Fat Joe, Fabolous, Jadakiss, and Busta Rhymes spitting nasty bars (“I ain’t tryna get caught up in this thug-rap s**t / Rather be bumper to bumper in drug traffic”). Khaled clearly knows how to schedule a show, putting the biggest names at the front of the record to hype it up and make up for a sleepy second half. Once the party dies down after track six, it’s nothing but standard rap talk about living large and being better than most people.
So who is DJ Khaled? According to Major Key, he’s rap’s current party host and helping the genre’s biggest stars take a victory lap for all their accomplishments. That makes for a good start to an album, but what’s the end game? For all the hype and glorious build-up Khaled builds for himself and his brand, it’s almost saddening to find out how hollow and uninteresting he really is as a personality. Major Key is like a retail mixtape of today’s current popular rappers for anyone who doesn’t know any better. No wonder Khaled doesn’t want to play himself, because himself doesn’t have much to offer.