“It breaks my heart. They didn’t believe in us. They played themselves,” rants DJ Khaled on the title track of his 13th album, God Did. For over 15 years – and longer, if you count his early days as a Miami radio and club DJ – he has positioned himself as the id of rap’s mainstream, a meme-able interlocutor of the form’s pop ambitions. It’s a role that hearkens back to the days of pioneering New York radio jocks like Frankie Crocker and Mr. Magic. But DJ Khaled has earned more fame than his predecessors, or contemporaries like DJ Drama, yielding four platinum albums, a welter of unavoidable hits like “I’m the One” and “Wild Thoughts,” and the spectacle of former President Barack Obama using his “All I Do Is Win” as entrance music. Success, it seems, breeds a lot of haters. “You either win with us, or you watch us win,” warns Khaled.
Amidst all the hate Khaled receives – that he’s generally annoying and his albums resemble celebrity basketball games – perhaps the most lasting criticism is that he “doesn’t do anything.” He’s not a musician, per se, though he’s grown careful to add himself to his liner notes despite making few if any musical contributions to his tracks. However, he arranges and helps finance the recording sessions, corrals the acts into the studio, and coaxes performances that range from “mid” to outstanding. That’s the definition of a producer, at least in the classic sense. The results may veer towards aggressively loud and self-congratulatory bangers, but everyone yells and screams “All I Do Is Win” when it drops after the buzzer sounds. It’s party music. After all, much of hip-hop culture is about the art of the boast. Khaled’s “we the best” declarations are as commercially successful as anyone else’s, even if he generally lacks the nuance and depth that mark the form at its aesthetic peak.
Listening to Khaled’s albums is like searching for blessings amidst the chaff, and the signal-to-noise ratio is generally low. But God Did isn’t as torturously bad as, say, 2019’s Father of Asahd. The one moment that has everyone chattering is Jay-Z’s verse on the title track. The self-made billionaire that wants everyone to know he’s a self-made billionaire still raps every now and then, and while the liquid, metronomic flow that made him a legend has permanently evaporated, he’s still capable of twisting metaphors into a compelling, quote tweet-worthy rhyme. “I’m at the cap table where the splits is/Not that cap table, boy, we live this,” he raps.
Other takeaways include another Drake Billboard hit, “Staying Alive.” (To mark the occasion, he debuted a new hairstyle on social media.) Khaled has increasingly relied on Drake’s preternatural ability to manipulate streaming algorithms, and the Canadian rapper obliges by pairing with Lil Baby for a track that turns the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” chorus into the usual laptop-quantized anomie. “Juice WRLD Did” excavates a leak the late Chicago rapper made in 2019, and his animated performance underlines how much the he is missed. Jadakiss is still taking a well-earned victory lap after The Lox’s triumphant appearance on Verzuz last year. Fans continue to debate whether Future is still an artistic force or a complacent superstar in decline, but his pairing with SZA on “Beautiful” generates a few sparks. Latto and City Girls are ill-served by a lame reprise of Mr. Cheeks club-rap chestnut “Lights, Camera, Action” on “Bills Paid.” The less said about Kanye West and Eminem’s “Use This Gospel,” the better.
At the end of God Did, fledgling Meek Mill associate Vory gets a look on “Grateful.” But it’s the backing track’s sampling of Christian singer Nancy Grandquist’s 1980 song “Let the Blessings Flow” that lingers, not Vory’s forgettable performance. As Grandquist’s soulful voice hearkens towards a spirituality deeper than money lust, she summons a passion that this wan exercise in prosperity gospel advertisements mostly lacks.