DJ Khaled’s defining quality is his lack of character development. It’s 2019, but he’s still the guy who spent most of the ‘00s yelling into the microphone as a disc jockey at Miami’s 99JAMZ. He’s still the guy holding Fat Joe’s umbrella in the “Make It Rain” video even though he had nothing to do with the single. He’s still the guy who accidentally salvaged his career by getting lost while jet skiing at night and documenting his harrowing journey to safety on Snapchat. (“It’s so dark out here. We don’t know where the hell we at. The key is to make it. The key is never give up. It’s not easy to win – I know that.”)
More than anything, he’s still the guy who only knows how to make one album – the kind that evenly splits the difference between DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz-hosted mixtapes and the Now That’s What I Call Music! series. On his 2006 debut Listennn… the Album, Khaled developed the blueprint that he would follow to a T on all of his ensuing LPs: orchestrate collaborations between rap’s popular kids, play the ambiguous role of motivational speaker/mascot (simultaneously addressing listener and fellow artist), and hope that any one of his songs pops off on the radio.
Nothing has changed on Khaled’s 11th studio album, Father of Asahd, except for the fact that he has a kid now and has stopped inviting Ace Hood to the studio. Sure, there are newcomers; 2018 breakout stars Lil Baby, Gunna, and Tay Keith all make appearances, but these rappers are as firmly a part of the mainstream hip-hop establishment as veterans like their Asahd co-stars Meek Mill and Big Sean. In theory, Khaled could be scouting talent and using his platform to pair established artists with relative unknowns, but he’s too busy fishing for hits. He’s a commercial artist, chained to the middle of the road.
On Father of Asahd, Khaled is determined to recreate the past successes of his last album, 2017’s Grateful. One might call it a cynical approach, but cynical isn’t really Khaled’s style – it’s something more like lazy. “No Brainer” (originally released last July) reprises the Justin Bieber/Chance the Rapper/Quavo trio and cheerful, elastic bassline of his #1 hit “I’m the One.” After his Santana redux “Wild Thoughts” peaked at #2 on the Hot 100, Khaled once again attempts to cash in on ‘90s nostalgia; “Freak N You” builds on a clunky, on-the-nose flip of the Jodeci hit of the same name, and “Just Us” doesn’t succeed in being anything other than a Great Value brand “Ms. Jackson,” despite SZA’s best efforts.
With a guiding philosophy but no genuine vision of his own, Khaled is left at the mercy of the artists whom he invites to contribute to his albums. Father of Asahd, like all of Khaled’s albums before it, is like an all-star game – an exhibition that has little bearing on the careers of its participants. That said, Asahd contains a handful of gripping moments, like Meek Mill’s verse on “Weather the Storm” and Cardi B’s verse on “Wish Wish,” in which she adapts Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” flow for the album’s most menacing couplet: “Whatever you do, sis, keep it cute, sis/ Leave that beefing shit at Ruth Chris or end up toothless.”
“Higher,” a duet between John Legend and Nipsey Hussle, is an exquisite piece of gospel-rap; a powerful, sentimental moment that will go down as the defining track of Father of Asahd simply because of Nipsey’s death, but it is a legitimate high point. DJ Khaled may be one of rap’s most prominent institutions, but even in the case of his most memorable songs, one can’t help but think that they are special in spite of him, rather than because of him.