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Album Review: DJ Khaled's Kiss the Ring

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by Abby Raskin

When I think "modern American pastimes," I think birth certificate conspiracies. In the case of DJ Khaled, I've often wondered whether he may have been born with ten or so exclamation points after his name. His latest venture and sixth studio album, Kiss the Ring, probably strengthens my theory.

The multi-talent recruits some of hip-hop's self-proclaimed best and brightest, but even in an album more or less dominated by guest appearances -- often in sets of three or four -- the DJ's intermittent, booming third-person declarations awaken you to the force behind the album. Producer, DJ, record label exec, actor, radio host and rapper--and yet again enlisting an all-star crew ranging from Kanye to Wiz to Nas to Nicki: DJ Khaled Bin Abdul Khaled wears many hats and has lots of friends.

Even so, with fame and fan bases come haters and YouTube comment threads (the latter especially conducive to recklessly free speech), and in the case of Khaled, he has certainly acquired his fair (or maybe unfair) share. While some of his tracks may not be suitable to all the high-maintenance listeners out there in cyberspace and beyond, Khaled has managed to make a significant mark for himself, and in the space of studio albums this process has often meant taking on the role of collagist, conductor, backbone.

Khaled-haters be damned, a close listen reveals a Kiss that is at its best moments refreshingly tender. Tracks like "Hip Hop" and "Suicidal Thoughts" prove the possibility of a Khaled album that, contrary to past criticism, isn't simply about going hard. The overall flow of his sixth concoction is not entirely consistent sonically or thematically (for example: he follows a song all about pussy with a song all about suicide), and as a result, KTR can come off as somewhat sloppily assembled. But while a couple of his matchups sound admittedly less like collaboration and more like mishmash, often they work (sometimes surprisingly) well.

Kiss the Ring may or may not prove Khaled's claim to be "the best." It may or may not win over his most ardent haters. But as the titular phrase suggests, he's already on top anyway.

1. "Shout Out to the Real" (f. Meek Mill, Ace Hood and Plies) (Produced by Jahlil Beats/Co-Produced by DJ Khaled)
The first half-minute of the album is dedicated purely to epic instrumental introduction, akin to something you might imagine hearing right before the beginning of the Trojan War (or at least before a sweet dueling reenactment at Medieval Times), followed shortly by three substantive verses from the album's first trio: Meek Mill, Ace Hood (who pops up multiple times throughout KTR), and Plies. All three of the guys on this track have been featured on past Khaled creations - sometimes together, sometimes apart. The lyrics cover what appears to be a rise to fame built on tension - tension between murder and loyalty, between fame and street, between individual accomplishment and a respect for the community.
While all three do the opener justice, Ace's verse is arguably the strongest of the three, as he talks about the pressure of wanting to say fuck the system while realizing he has become more or less implicated in it himself. Their verses cover everything from the expensive blunts that come with fame, to the idea of collectively drowning together in the street life; ultimately all three choose what's "real": loyalty over royalty.

2. "Bitches & Bottles (Let's Get It Started)" (Feat. Lil Wayne, T.I. and Future) (Produced by Mike Will)
If you're easily turned off by repetitive lines about, well, bitches and bottles, you may not absolutely love this song. Content-wise, the title of the track says it all. The hook is catchy and the lyrics are mostly predictable. Wayne's closing verse is the highlight of the track, representing southern hip-hop as he effortlessly convinces listeners that "Carter" rhymes with "insomnia." The brief break in the beat at the beginning of his verse is a welcome relief from an otherwise over-the-top number.

3. "I Wish You Would" (Feat. Kanye West and Rick Ross) (Produced by Hit Boy)*
Featuring two of Khaled's most esteemed superstars, the second single released earlier this year brings back some of the tenacity of an earlier Kanye-Khaled collaboration, "Go Hard." In true Yeezy form, the rapper's verse is filled with rhetorical questions: "We believe in God but do God believe in us? / If we believe enough, will we ever get to know 'im?" Besides a decent verse, Rick Ross mainly plays the role of improvisational background noise machine.

4. "Take It to the Head" (Feat. Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, and Lil Wayne) (Produced by The Runners/Co-Produced by DJ Khaled)*
KTR's first single will likely go immediately to your head and stay there for a while. It's almost disconcertingly catchy. On an album dominated by men, Nicki holds her own and avoids caricature. Overall, if you can get over the mild awkwardness that it was recorded shortly before the Chris Brown/Drake tiff, the song is an enjoyable listen, especially if you're in the market for a theme song to your excuse-less, apology-less fucked up-ness.

5. "They Ready" (Feat. J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar) (Produced by J. Cole)*
J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar team up on this one for a bouncy, playful, sample-driven piece. It's unclear whether J. Cole is dumbing himself down purposefully, or if it simply isn't among his strongest work, but his production skills shine through nonetheless. Main topics covered include Hennessy, bad bitches, and Uranus.

6. "I'm So Blessed" (Feat. Big Sean, Ace Hood, Wiz Khalifa and T-Pain) (Produced by K.E./Co-Produced by DJ Khaled)
The combination of Big Sean, Ace, Wiz and T-Pain works surprisingly well. It might not have hurt to turn down T-Pain's auto-tune a notch or two, but even so, his hook holds the verses nearly seamlessly together. Rhymes-wise, Wiz's verse is unexpectedly weak (for instance, rhyming "down" with..."down") but the content of his verse, concentrating on the contradictions and hate that come with the rise to stardom (a recurring theme on the album?), makes it worth a few extra listens.

7. "Hip Hop" (Feat. Scarface, Nas and DJ Premier) (Produced by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. Scratchesby DJ Premier) **
This piece contains some serious lyrical depth and old school cadence. The combination of just enough scratching thrown in by Premier, with a few extra pinches of that classic-Nas ether, makes for a well-balanced recipe, even despite a few too many sugary introductory words from Khaled ("This is special"). Hearkening back to Common, the track personifies and feminizes hip hop, and is a somber exploration of the resentment Scarface and Nas feel toward Ms. Hop's current, whorish manifestations.

8. "I Did It for My Dawgz" (Feat. Rick Ross, French Montana, Meek Mill and Jadakiss) (Produced by Beat Bully)
Rick Ross, French Montana, Meek Mill and Jadakiss play off some of the themes from Meek's first KTR appearance in the opening track. Whether or not you buy the idea, the quartet give you the sense that the financial reward of fame isn't just about having yachts, mansions, hoes and Benzes all to yourself. I ain't do it for myself who you think I did it for? (Hint: the answer might be cleverly hidden in the title).

9. "I Don't See Em" (Feat. Birdman, Ace Hood and 2 Chainz) (Produced by Detail)
Produced by Noel "Detail" Fisher, the man behind Lil Wayne's "How to Love," the beautifully understated beat on this track is by far one of the sickest on the album. Detail's careful production succeeds in complementing and enhancing the rappers' verses, avoiding the tendency to overpower or overdo.

10. "Don't Pay 4 It" (Feat. Wale, Tyga, Mack Maine and Kirko Bangz) (Produced by The Runners)
In case it wasn't painfully clear from every line in the song, "it" refers to sex and Wale, Tyga, Mack Maine, and Kirko Bangz want you to know they don't pay for it (in fact, for that matter, you should probably pay them for sex). That's about all there is to say about that one...A likely club banger to-be.

11. "Suicidal Thoughts" (Feat. Mavado) (Produced by Boi-1Da)*
"Suicidal Thoughts," released nearly 20 years after Biggie's song with the same name, momentarily places the album in Kingston (where it remains for the Outro) and for maybe the first time in the album, a track about drug use has an oddly sobering resonance to it. Mavado's solo, with a couple words of encouragement from Khaled along the way, is a candid combination of emotional outpouring and quiet introspection.

12. "Outro (They Don't Want War)" (Feat. Ace Hood) (Produced by DJ Toomp)
Despite a handful of redundant Khaled phrases (everyone has a choice, go hard, we the best) his final offering has an almost strangely intimate feel about it, as we eavesdrop on his lunch order (opting for the steamed fish rather than "the regular") at what appears to be a Jamaican food stand. Alongside Ace, the Palestinian-American puts on his rapper hat for a final verse weaving between the personal and the political: "I'm f**king molding, foreign without an owner / Motherf**king neighbors bought the whole corner."

Check out all the lyrics to Kiss the Ring on Rap Genius

DJ Khaled - B-Boyz Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Shoutout To The Real Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Aktion Pak Lyrics
DJ Khaled - They Ready Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Take It To The Head Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Hip Hop Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Don't Get Me Started Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Don't Pay 4 It Lyrics
DJ Khaled - I Did It For My Dawgz Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Bitches & Bottles (Let's Get It Started) Lyrics
DJ Khaled - I Don't See 'Em Lyrics
DJ Khaled - I'm So Blessed Lyrics
DJ Khaled - I Wish You Would Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Outro (They Don't Want War) Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Shout Out To The Real Lyrics
DJ Khaled - Suicidal Thoughts Lyrics