DJ Khaled is something like the Prop Joe (HBO’s The Wire) of hip-hop, if Prop Joe weren’t ever able to supply the best ideas or the best product in Baltimore, only the best compromises. While he’s produced a few beats here and there as Beat Novacane, and there’s no denying his influence on the Miami club scene through his work as a radio and club DJ there, for the nation at large, he’s known mainly as the guy who does everything by doing absolutely nothing. Perhaps an unfair critique considering tracks like “We Takin’ Over” and “Out Here Grindin'” probably aren’t getting made without his behind the scenes brokering, but in an artistic sense, extremely true.
Still, as this album’s “Welcome to My Hood” and much of its second half proves, the guy does have a narrow artistic vision that provides his tracks with a signature sound even if his hands never touch them, and his voice is limited to self-shoutouts and proclamations that he and his friends are “the best”, something his sophomore album proclaimed loudly and this one reiterates in an attempt to make up for the continent-spanning dud that was 2008’s We Global and 2010’s Victory.
We the Best Forever is formatted very similarly to Khaled’s previous We the Best release, front-loading the tracklisting with its big singles that also serve as its best songs. “Welcome to My Hood” is another posse cut in the vein of “All I Do Is Win”, complete with the tinny synths Khaled’s singles have become known for and an oddly gaudy celebration of down-and-out living. Surprisingly, this time it all works for the most part because Plies and Lil’ Wayne seem to be trying really hard and because Rick Ross is still surprising us with his newfound ability to satisfy from behind a microphone. But what’s really most striking about the other three tracks in We the Best Forever‘s opening four is how little they have in common with Khaled’s track record.
“I’m on One” opens the album with a 40-produced banger that feels like a donation from the Drake camp rather than something Khaled pulled together over one of his favorite producer’s beats, and the “Money” / “I’m Thuggin'” combo may as well have been outtakes from Young Jeezy’s The Real Is Back and Waka Flocka’s DuFlocka Rant mixtapes, respectively. Perhaps tellingly, “I’m on One”‘s instant appeal and “We Thuggin'”‘s delirious ignorance are the highlights of this tape. Each track feels like a peak moment in their respective artist’s careers, and Khaled should be thankful to have them because what follows “We Thuggin'” is, as Khaled followers probably expected, one of the worst albums of the year.
It’s disappointing because We the Best was nearly a decent album, and the title of this one implies Khaled realizes he’s fallen off terribly over the past five years. So do the first four tracks, which represent the strongest stretch of music Khaled’s ever handed us on a disc. But then he throws these big, over-produced, utterly forgettable tales of triumph and perseverance that sound like the soundtrack to Black Disney Channel Original Movies, should such a thing ever exist. There’s a cool part on “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” where DJ Infinity drops everything but the drums for Jadakiss’ verse, but overall, it’s a pretty boring song with faux-soulful autotuned vocals from Mary J. Blige, the former voice of women in the streets. “Legendary”, however, follows it up with something We the Best Forever can never recover from: two mediocre male vocalists (Ne-Yo, Chris Brown) and one strong female (Keyshia Cole) delivering a chain-linked fence of platitudes over a sleep-inducing synth beat, all tied together by a chorus inspired by NoDoze. It doesn’t help matters when Khaled reminds us that they’re “going in” midway through the track.
From that moment on, the guests that follow are largely reduced to caricatures of themselves. Busta Rhymes, Cee-Lo, Birdman, Cory Gunz, and others emphasize some of their biggest weaknesses. Meanwhile, Ace Hood, Vado, B.o.B., Tyga and the entirety of the album’s seven-minute “Welcome to My Hood” remix which closes the album (Isn’t that exciting?) sleepwalk through the sort of verses they were born to write, approximating what makes them appealing as artists without ever feeling invested in the exercise.
Perhaps a lot of that, though, is the lifeless aesthetic Khaled brings to this portion of the album. Being his album, it’s certainly not fair to place all the blame on the artists he paid to get him paid in return. He’s ultimately the co-signer on these performances, and considering many of them (particularly “Sleep When I’m Gone” and “A Million Lights”) fit into his general aesthetic as an executive producer, you certainly can’t blame some of these guys for collecting their paychecks if it’s what Khaled wanted.
But, despite all of this, it’s certainly worth noting that We the Best Forever is Khaled’s most complete album since its namesake, for whatever that may be worth to you, and despite all kinds of reasons provided to do otherwise (Khaled actually spitting a verse on “Sleep When I’m Gone” comes to mind) it’s not an incredible struggle to listen to a Khaled album front-to-back for once. “Legendary” is the only real obstacle to that goal, assuming you aren’t a highly selective listener of course. And if I’m able to admit at least that much, I can easily fathom this LP greatly satisfying the listeners of the world who share none of my concerns about this album, who simply want to hear southern club radio’s biggest names talking about their money and their career drive to live vicariously through such bars. I can’t fault that on a base level, even if, intellectually, it certainly rings a hollow endeavor much the same as We the Best Forever itself.
Still, gaudy voyeurism and fantasy gangsterism aside, Khaled has retreated from his previous attempts at treating hip-hop like a vehicle for commerce and little else. He’s found time to let some truly enjoyable music slip through the cracks again, whether they were favors as much as personal concoctions or not, and while one still gets the feeling Khaled views these artists as products on a shelf as much as human beings, it’s nice to know he still knows a good song when he hears one. Every once in a while.