Singles and collaborations lie at the intersections of mainstream relevancy. Firstly, with the increased accessibility of streaming services and online music allowing people to pick and choose any song they wish to hear and skip any they don’t, listening to singles or individual album tracks, rather than an entire record, has become the dominant format in which music is typically consumed, particularly by the younger generations and especially following the emerging importance of playlists in this age of streaming. For this reason, it’s becoming more and more common for mainstream pop, hip hop and R&B albums to read more like a selection of individual songs than a cohesive project in which each cut has some significant bearing on those surrounding it in the tracklisting. Of course, there are hugely significant exceptions to this trend, with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. being a prime example from this year, but on the other hand, the fact that deep album cuts can chart higher than singles demonstrates how this paradigm shift has affected the way in which music is now consumed. Future’s Mask Off, for instance, is one of the biggest hits of the year and the rapper’s highest-charting single to date, despite simply being an album track from his self-titled record released earlier this year that was only promoted to a single after charting even higher than the album’s lead single, Draco. With this heightened, single-focussed tendency of contemporary mainstream music comes an increased need for artists who want to crossover into the public’s musical lexicon to appear as a feature on other artists’ songs, with there now being a good chance that, in any given week, a substantial portion of singles in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 will feature guest appearances. As such, DJs and hype men have a great deal of influence within their industry, in that they act as somewhat of a hub, to which artists can look to secure guest appearances as a means of branching out to a wider audience, and Khaled Mohamed Khaled, known by his professional alias of DJ Khaled, is perhaps the biggest powerhouse in this field. Of course, fellow producers and DJs such as Calvin Harris and Steve Aoki are relevant to a similar degree, but the pertinence of DJ Khaled naturally seems so much bigger due to his status as a living meme, which has arguably elevated him past the point of simply being an industry bigwig and to the point of being a household name. Then again, being one of the music industry’s most well-known centres of activity for churning out chart-topping singles crammed to the brim with guest features, there is always a lingering question when it comes to full-length albums from Khaled, as the producer typically follows the business model of releasing all the worthwhile songs from a record as singles, leaving the actual project somewhat underwhelming, scattered or inconsistent as a whole. At this point, therefore, my opinions on an entire record from DJ Khaled usually come down to the collected sum of the quality of each song individually, rather than how the record stacks up as a coherent, focussed project. The DJ’s previous album, Major Key, for example, contained some of Khaled’s best songs and, thus, the record as a whole came off a lot better than much of his past output. There are instances, however, wherein the messiness of a DJ Khaled album can yield an almost numbing listening experience, and his latest release, Grateful, stumbles rather close to that territory. Like Major Key, Khaled’s newest record actually features some of his better material. However, with most songs of note from Grateful having already been released as a single prior to the unveiling of the full project, combined with the incredibly bloated, 87-minute-long runtime, this new album, as a whole, makes for a generally bland listening experience. Perhaps the record’s unwarranted length arises from the fact that this is the one DJ Khaled album thus far to have a semblance of a ‘theme’, with Grateful being peppered with smatterings of references to the producer’s newly-born son. However, when this concept largely comes in the form of arbitrary interjections from Khaled exclaiming his love for his kid, it’s easy to see through this and view the project simply as any other DJ Khaled album, meaning that there really is no excuse for the length of Grateful when the tracklisting could have so clearly been whittled down considerably.
With DJ Khaled being a single artist more than an album artist, it’s no surprise to find that many of the songs released in the run-up to Grateful rank as some of the best from the tracklisting, or at least as some of the more conspicuous, especially when compared to some of the drastically lacklustre deeper cuts. The week prior to the release of Grateful gave us Wild Thoughts, in which Rihanna’s personality shines through and brings a compelling flare to what is one of the more interesting instrumentals from across the album. The wisps of both classical and distorted electric guitar, sampled from Santana’s Maria Maria, provide a satisfying sense of light and shade, which is only bolstered by how well the classical guitar and Latin percussion play against Bryson Tiller’s slightly R&B-tinged flow during his guest verse. Similarly, Beyoncé’s call-and-response vocals throughout the record’s lead single, Shining, are punctuated in a particularly striking manner, whilst JAY-Z‘s guest appearance, although far from the stand-out rap verse from the record, brings a sizeable amount of energy to the cut, especially when compared to some of his more recent features. The succeeding single released to market Grateful, I’m The One, which features Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, Lil Wayne and, of course, Quavo, despite having the veneer of a generic pool party anthem, boasts a bouncy, bassy beat that is matched with a suitably bombastic performance from Chance, as well as a relatively well-worked refrain from Bieber, although the auto-tune-heavy deliveries from Quavo and Lil Wayne don’t really the retain the personality they would need to stand out in such an immense sea of features. Of the batch of singles released in promotion of DJ Khaled’s latest record, To The Max is unequivocally the weakest of the bunch, largely as a result of the baffling decision to rely solely on a poorly performed vocal feature from Drake across the course of the entire cut, with his languid, colourless singing working in direct conflict with the upbeat vibe that DJ Khaled seemed to be striving for, given the song’s title and the propulsive percussion.
Considering that DJ Khaled’s production is relatively well-executed on To The Max, however, it by no means stands as a complete failure, although it does allude to one of the most overbearing flaws to plague much of Grateful, that being the misuse of guest features, especially when certain artists are allowed a whole song to themselves and simply don’t retain the charisma, the cohesion or simply the talent to quite stick the landing. With any DJ Khaled album being largely driven by the star power of its feature list, it’s often how well the DJ puts a song’s guests to use that can make or break it and, as usual, Grateful is quite the mishmash in this regard. There are undoubtedly instances in which the singers and rappers brought onto a track fulfil their role perfectly well and translate a rather endearing degree of chemistry, but most of these moments are confined to the aforementioned singles, which becomes even more apparent and damning to the flow of Grateful given that, following an introductory track, all four singles are quickly bashed out one after the other. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this from some of the deeper cuts on the album, especially just after the halfway point, where some of the strongest hip hop cuts land. Major Bag Alert witnesses Migos bring their usual, auto-tuned, hook-heavy swagger to the record, although the fact that the production is handled solely by DJ Durel, who is most well-known for working with the Atlanta trap trio on some of their past projects, provides for one such instance from Grateful wherein the guest artist on a song dominates to such an extent, with Khaled’s presence being restricted to his signature vociferations, that it may as well have been lifted from one of their own projects. The following, back-to-back bops of Good Man and Billy Ocean stand out as putting their guest rappers — Pusha T and Jadakiss and Fat Joe and Raekwon respectively — to work particularly potently, with undoubtedly the best braggadocious bars from Grateful working their way into this collection of verses.
Outside of this very narrow selection of examples, however, the excessive length of the album sees perhaps some of the most clumsily implemented guest appearances of any DJ Khaled album in recent memory find their way into the tracklisting. With the record’s flow already being as jarring as it is due to just how front-loaded it is, the fact that it’s also bookended by some exceptionally weak attempts at crossing over in the territory of the current dancehall and ragga zeitgeist only works to its disadvantage when analysed as a cohesive project. Sizzla’s performance on the opening cut, (Intro) I’m So Grateful, fits incredibly awkwardly over what is a rather hollow and scarce dancehall beat, especially as the reggae singer reaches into his upper register and struggles to stay in key. Unchanging Love — the closing track, bar a 16-second, spoken-word cut of Khaled talking to his son — suffers from similar problems, with there again existing a notable disconnect between the sung delivery from Mavado and the instrumental, with the layers of over-produced acoustic and wah guitar and the singer’s seemingly aimless performance clashing with one another and conveying barely any semblance of consistency or chemistry. Likewise, the likes of Travi$ Scott, Future and Rick Ross appear at numerous points throughout the tracklisting, despite their features consistently ranking as amongst the most noticeably unsuited to the production across Grateful. Scott’s vocals on On Everything, for example, are layered in a horribly discordant fashion that only highlights how out-of-tune he is as he reaches into his higher range, which no amount of auto-tune proves capable of fixing. Far deeper into the tracklisting, Future’s verse on Iced Out My Arms is irritatingly monotone and off-beat, whilst his sung performance with Young Thug clashes to the point of simply being horribly shrill, which comes to a head as their vocals, once again, are inexplicably layered on top of one another. With so many instances of artists being completely misplaced or coming through with performances that are either incongruous or utterly unpleasant to listen to, Grateful, perhaps even more than any previous full-length project from DJ Khaled, is seriously in need of some trimming of its fat.
Going into reviews, I’ve always felt that there’s a need to understand the musical or artistic philosophy within which an artist is working, as a means of understanding and fairly evaluating their work, hence why I’ve never been too penalising about the lyrical content of mumble rappers, given that they tend to pursue a specific atmosphere, for which their mindless bravado simply acts as a piece of their overall aesthetic. As such, I felt it necessary to keep in mind that no DJ Khaled album is meant to be cohesive per se, rather the tracklisting runs almost like a playlist of individual songs from which the listener can pick and choose their favourites. However, the fact that, even when critiqued with this frame of mind, Grateful is far too messy to make for anything above a mediocre listening experience demonstrates just how poor some of its low points are. Of course, there are some significant high points that tip the scales slightly in the other direction, but with such songs being contained within very specific sections of this two-disc, 23-track record, they can only carry so much weight. Thus, as has often been the case with DJ Khaled’s full-length endeavours, Grateful equals out as being barely passable overall, even in spite of the selection of successful songs curated at various points throughout the tracklisting.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4.5/10