So your frenemies at Apple Music, in touting their exclusive stream of your true best friend DJ Khaled’s new album, describe it as “the hip-hop equivalent of an All-Star weekend.” Too true. Major Key does indeed employ the talents of 32 guest stars, the full delightful Baskin-Robbins flavor assortment (plus Meghan Trainor). A few luminaries (Future, Rick Ross, Big Sean) jump on multiple tracks, but most do not; as usual, your gracious host confines himself to infrequent ad-libs and shout-outs and hearty sloganeering. (“They don’t want me to have another anthem!”) And just like the real All-Star Game, no one is trying too hard, galumphing good-naturedly around the court and throwing up wild alley-oop passes and taking extra care not to get injured. (Everyone succeeds except Kodak Black.)
That ain’t the surprising part. Khaled long ago cemented his reputation as the Garry Marshall of Rap, his overstuffed and undercooked full-lengths the sonic equivalent of Mother’s Day or New Year’s Day or Valentine’s Day. He’s 10 years and nine albums deep into this Garfield Minus Garfield routine now, and the pitfalls (and jokes!) are obvious, but the highs are undeniable. “I’m on One” is, very quietly, a top-5 Drake single; 2014’s 50-R&B-crooner pileup “Hold You Down” sounded stealthily gorgeous on the radio. The single greatest thing I have ever witnessed at a Hot 97 Summer Jam, in that hallowed annual NYC arena-rap institution’s 20-plus-year history, is Khaled leading roughly 600 onstage rappers and 400,000 rapt onlookers through an ungodly rousing rendition of “All I Do Is Win” in 2010. He tore the roof off, or, more accurately, he hired a crapload of people to tear the roof off. It all amounts to the same thing.
No, the big innovation with Major Key is that it’s the first DJ Khaled record where you find yourself wishing for more DJ Khaled. The guy is a social-media genius now, a Snapchat megastar and humble Beyoncé opening act with a firmer grip on fame and career longevity than, hmmm, let’s say 50 to 70 percent of this album’s guests. Get a load of this album cover.
Amazing. “I was so against the lion,” Busta Rhymes recently allowed to The New York Times. “Don’t sit next to the lion.” They don’t want him to sit next to the lion! There’s more personality and joie de vivre in that image than on, hmmm, let’s say 85 to 100 percent of the guest verses contained herein. Khaled was a first-ballot Why Is This Guy Even Famous Hall of Fame inductee, but we’ve all long figured it out by now. He faked it till he made it. Throw the best parties for long enough and you start outshining your guests, even in absentia.
Anyway, buncha songs on this thing, each one its own stretch-SUV-limo monument to jovial, untouchable opulence. It’s all sonically anonymous, but it constitutes its own style if you hang in long enough. Jay Z’s kicks things off with “I Got the Keys,” tap dancing around both a vintage croon-barked Future hook and his own various middle-aged issues, as usual. “My wife Beyoncé / I brag different,” he crows. Yeah, and you grovel different, too, pal. Regroup.
We get Drake out of the way early, too: The word you’re supposed to mentally put in front of “For Free” is Fuck, unfortunately, and while the result lacks the aggrieved whininess of Views — still the no. 1 album in America!; save us, Frank Ocean! — it’s no fun for anybody, but especially whichever poor young miss is the intended target of “Your pussy on agua.” That’s the song where Khaled does his “they don’t want me to have another anthem!” rant; it’s not another anthem. Nothing here qualifies, sadly: The thirstiest track is “Do You Mind,” which steals the piano line from “Lovers and Friends” and throws Nicki Minaj (and others) atop the same 50-R&B-crooner pileup from last time. It is very unlikely, as she insists here, that Nicki shouts “Go Mets!” while in the sack. Stay woke.
Everyone’s got an agenda. Nas announces that his new album is done on a song literally titled “Nas Album Done.” Bryson Tiller assails the haters on “Ima Be Alright,” which implies an emotional investment in Bryson Tiller one way or the other that is not much in evidence. J. Cole gets his own interlude-ish trifle on which to threaten retirement. (Major Key in toto is a hilarious foil to the “J. Cole went platinum with no features” meme, especially if it doesn’t go platinum.) Most of the crabby NYC guys (Busta unsurprisingly manic; Fabolous surprisingly muted) are quarantined to “Don’t Ever Play Yourself,” which mostly wastes Khaled’s best slogan and, to add injury to insult, is ultimately stolen by pleasantly aggrieved relative newcomer Kent Jones, who is from Florida. Travis Scott does the thing where you think it’s Young Thug, but then you find out it’s actually Travis Scott, and you get really angry.
None of this is fatal, with one notable exception. (If you auto-drafted your Yahoo fantasy football team, and the next morning you found out your top three picks were Meghan Trainor, Wiz Khalifa, and Wale, you’d probably throw your laptop down a mine shaft and sue Marissa Mayer yourself. Putting them all on the same song is a major dick move.) But no one moment is especially life-affirming, either. Eventually, you land at “Pick These Hoes Apart,” and ponder whether it’s the best song here, or the worst.
Way more evidence for “worst,” tbh. Kodak Black, Jeezy, and French Montana all independently mention how hard their dicks are, and Black’s verse overall is a disaster: “She so wet I made that pussy fart” is just the prelude to “First I eat it, then I beat it just like Michael.” But the sum of these distasteful parts is lurid in a discomfitingly hypnotic way, the phrase “Rolex today / That Audemar tomorrow” compressed into a half-conscious slur of X-rated vowels. There is a specific variety of Really Dumb that shines in this environment: Witness the fact that Big Sean survives both a sex jam called “Work For It” and the blustery “Holy Key,” in which he is paired with Kendrick Lamar.
It’s not that Lamar isn’t great — ”Brand endorsement joining forces with sorcerers signing me / Law enforcement, their forces tortures us with violent speed” — but such intricacy somehow doesn’t shine as brightly in this environment. (Other rappers hand-wave at social justice here, Big Sean included, but it’s far less convincing and even less effective.) Veteran soul screamer Betty Wright is this song’s true MVP, howling her ass off and understanding what a moment like this requires, which is total, triumphant, unrelenting bluster. She alone is reading, word for word, from the Gospel of Khaled.
Who is the they in the They don’t want you to have ____________, construction, anyway? Who stands opposed to DJ Khaled in 2016? There is a paranoia, a silent-majority boosterism, a singularly ludicrous opulence, a distracting glut of surrogates, a corny catch-phrase over-reliance, a devious social-media savvy masquerading as goofball naiveté that may remind you of someone. Couldn’t be, could it? Nahhhh. The blithe takeaway is that Major Key is minor by design, an affable loss leader for a Snapchat account. But it might be the loss leader for something bigger, and scarier. You stare delightedly at the cover and your eyes are drawn from the lion to the flowers to the somehow-unassuming man himself. But don’t play yourself. Watch the throne.