Sure, DJ Khaled is pop-hop’s most cheerfully optimistic cheerleader. More of a gatherer-party-thrower-influencer than an artist or producer (name one sonic signature beyond yelling his own name), the oversized Miami-by-way-of-New-Orleans personality has invited his famous friends to the brightly lit ball for 10 albums now. That they have all come in droves, willingly, says as much about the platinum-plated lure of Khaled as it does about the desperation of his guests to be there — even if it does mean that he shows you baby pictures all night, as he did with his last record.
With this week’s 11th album release, “Father of Asahd,” however, you have to wonder how well his brand (or that of his guests) could stand up to another same-y sounding set of glossy, gooey rap-pap that speaks loud and says nothing. Especially considering that many of the same revelers keep stopping by, holding court with the same old conversations, with Khaled alternately playing jester and baby sitter.
Sometimes being a cheerleader doesn’t sound so cheerful when the team hollers are hollow, and the music is, at a time when grouchy trap hop rules the land, often so sickly sweet, it hurts your teeth. Besides, after 10 albums, who the hell is left in your crowd to keep conversation fresh and witty, anyway?
Take Beyoncé and Jay-Z, hip-hop’s Liz and Dick and their track here, “Top Off.” For Khaled’s last album, “Grateful,” the threesome — with their songwriting-by-committee crews and applause meter production posse — tackled the spangled empowerment-first anthem “Shining,” and all seemed right with the world. Now, with a unsteadying repetitive melody, some whoops, bloops and Cardi-whirrs from Future, and Hova’s lyrical tip to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” Bey and Jay tackle crime and punishment. Not Dostoyevsky, but rather Meek Mill’s imprisonment, his Maybach, his not being able to “wheelie in this free world” without getting jailed. Odd then, that for all their disgust (and Bey’s feature is haughty), the married twosome still sound as if they’re preparing to sip champagne cocktails by the chaise lounge, rather than portray tension and ire. With the help of DJ Khaled, hip-hop’s first couple just turned into Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. (Jay-Z’s Rocnation Management Company handles Mill’s affairs, and drove the “Free Meek” campaign, hard and fast.)
Luckily, Meek Mill — another of Khaled’s longtime features guests – stops by to speak for himself, in surprisingly subtler tones, on “Weathering the Storm.” On this sleekly bumping cut, Milly talks up how “I went from licks to most wanted to the top of the Forbes … I brought my mama tears, and I turned ’em to VVS diamonds,” in proudly poetic tones. Good track.
Other longtime guests of Khaled’s such as Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper don’t fare much better, now that they’re stuck in a corner of the party talking to each other — and Quavo, again — just as they did on Khaled’s last album. It’s almost as if the DJ fears that this trio is the bash’s nerds, and so he tucked them into the lightweight, Latin-tinged, AutoTune-heavy “No Brainer” — something cute, but ultimately going nowhere.
Stuck in another corner of Khaled’s increasingly smaller studio-crib is the crew making “Jealous,” Big Sean, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne, with only crooner Chris to smooth over Weezy and Sean’s grousing with a balm-ing, breezy lyrical line: “Girl, I can tell that you need some love in your life / And I’m the one, don’t let no one change your mind / F— what they say.”
Though it’s interesting to hear Wayne do his gruff rap-Dylan vocal thing on something as slippery slick as a DJ Khaled record, his (and Sean’s) repeated performances on other “Asadh” tracks (“Freak N’ You” and “Thank You,” respectively) wind up sounding like drunks who won’t leave a bar after last call.
Remember, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay on another DJ Khaled track.
While old friends and freeloaders litter “Father of Asadh” like empty pony bottles, new collaborators and fresh faces actually do lift the proceedings and save the day.
The scintillating club cut “Wish Wish” with Cardi B is all her. Thankfully. Yes, 21 Savage is on it, and Tay Keith produced it. But from her strip club groove to her truly weird soliloquies (check her out talking about “goat meat”), Cardi elevates a good dance track into a tuneful, spicy trap epic.
Rather than pair SZA up with another voice, as Khaled does on most other tracks here, that guest is given room to roam, uncrowded, on the simmering “Just Us.” With the pulse of Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” bellow her, and an open arrangement before her, she jumps through several complex musical changes (and an interpolation of “99 Problems”) with passion and compassion. Smashing. But it doesn’t even sound as if it belongs on any DJ Khaled record.
What does belong — in a good and positive way — is Khaled’s teaming with singer John Legend and late, great rapper Nipsey Hussle on “Higher.” If others voices approached this uplifting track and positivist lyrics, it would have turned into a saccharine mess. With minimal interference from Khaled, Legend gets the chance to wail on — no, craft it with his winding voice and its serpentine swerves — on the hook, while Hussle writes a love letter to Los Angeles’s ups, downs, heroes and villains to rival Raymond Carver.
Really, this is the loveliest moment on “Father of Asahd,” one that manages to be more deeply familial than Khaled’s quaint shout-outs to the album’s titular subject (dad and son), without dripping in sentiment.
If DJ Khaled wants a potential blueprint for his next selfie, I mean, album, he need not look further than the sincere, stark “Higher.” Rather than be another advertisement for his brand, you actually got the feeling that Khaled was serving up (or selling) genuine soul.