DJ Khaled is hip-hop's estranged uncle—no one is sure just what he does, but he comes back year after year with new friends and more money. On the new Major Key, his first record since achieving Snapchat meme status, the Miami "producer" only produced 5 of 14 tracks. He raps on exactly none, but yells his name with a chorus of echoes on exactly all of them.
It's a curious dynamic for success, and one that goes back to the beginning of his career. Khaled Mohammed Khaled was born in New Orleans in 1975, the son of Palestinian immigrants. Infatuated by rap at an early age, he got in with the city's burgeoning talent, making friends with Lil Wayne, Mavado, Birdman, Cash Money et al. Later, hosting a radio show with 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, he hooked up with the city's rising talent: Rick Ross, Pitbull and Fat Joe when he and the Terror Squad came down from New York for vacation.
His early career is a mix of a fierce talent for networking, and being in the right place at the right time. His first album, Listennn ... The Album, features a murderer's row of Southern talent: Bun B, Pitbull, Slim Thug, Clipse, prestige-era Lil Wayne. Khaled raps on none of the cuts and produced only three of 17. This pattern continued for seven more albums. Khaled recruits the talents of the year's (mostly Southern) hit-makers, tracing hip-hop's path from New Orleans to Miami to Atlanta. Like a good club promoter, Khaled banks on the Fear of Missing Out; rappers flock to his records to be seen and heard at one of the year's biggest industry parties.
But the paradigm changed when Khaled became a social media phenom last year. On Snapchat, Khaled posted a prolific stream of self-help platitudes and rich people problems — the posts that shot him to meme status involved Khaled getting lost on a jet ski outside Miami, live updating his misadventure. It's hard to tell what percentage of his fans are laughing with him and what number are laughing at him.
If anything, Major Key offers an hour-long meet and greet with rap's greatest names of the moment. On posse cut after posse cut, Future, Gucci Mane, Nicki Minaj and company get in on 16 bars or less, bolstering Khaled's claim that his teams are the best. On "For Free," Drake scores another mega-hit to close out the summer, investing in his rappa-ternt-sanga status and relaying the prestige of his bedroom talent. Khaled offers the same content over and over again — "Another one," "DJ Khaled!" When he is behind the board, his beats are gauche, overproduced. In a bizarre equation, the less DJ Khaled is on a DJ Khaled album, the better it tends to be.
In this sense, Khaled is the perfect musician for our time — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing more than "another one." In the way that Trump has achieved unimaginable success without a lick of actionable policy, Khaled can sell millions of records without saying more than 10 words per album. If Trump's social media genius lies on Twitter, Khaled is the anodyne equivalent on Snapchat, dominating the form with variations on the same, self-obsessed theme. He's a sentient meme with self-help slogans and occasional beats. And as Major Key rises to the top of the chart, we can't seem to get enough.