On the heels of prior LPs We Global, Victory and We the Best, DJ Khaled summoned all the modesty his mortal frame could bear and titled his latest offering at the altar of conspicuous consumption We the Best Forever. But in the event his divination should not come to pass, I’m confident that Khaled could be successful in a more corporate setting. After all, is there anything more valuable in the office than getting talented coworkers to dedicate themselves to skilled labor that you’ll eventually get credit for? Does it really matter that DJ Khaled doesn’t actually do anything?
But the truth is, Khaled’s expertise is one of middle management, and in the world of mixtapes essentially functioning as major-label records, getting the right people in the right room at the right time is pretty much the whole job. Khaled’s sensibilities have stayed almost perfectly intact as the speedboat rap typified by the Runners has morphed into the more overtly threatening and less versatile sound of Lex Luger. And likewise, the results of conflict are neatly preordained. While the raps are often celebratory paeans to obstacles overcome (cars paid for on the lot and women serviced), a perfunctory R&B hook acknowledges the presence of haters, ruthless police officers and the catastrophic possibility that the aforementioned might lead to balling under control. But of course, the grind never fails.
Of course, one of the wonderful things about hip-hop is that “grind” can be applied in a totally allegorical sense, and the timelessness of subject matter of We the Best Forever is best illustrated in their eternal titles: two examples are “Money” (a subject both Young Jeezy and Ludacris can agree on) and “I’m Thuggin’,” in which Plies somehow walks away with Forever’s most ridiculous boast (“tell Congress I’m stealin’ cable!”). Yes, women do make appearances on We the Best Forever, but only as incorporeal subjects of conquest or assumed morale support of Chris Brown (“Legendary”). Meanwhile, the tiny vestiges of more, um, organic hip-hop — a Boogie Down Productions quote on “Welcome to My Hood” and the interpolation of “P.S.K. What Does It Mean” on “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over” (more likely recognized from Biggie’s “B.I.G. Interlude”) — come off like overly eager attempts taglines from a movie script, while in the midst of all the self-congratulatory artifice, earthier hooks from the likes of Cee-Lo Green and Mary J. Blige only work as displays of a stellar contact list.
That the first four tracks on We the Best Forever subject themselves to the most in-depth discussion is apt and probably intentional. You might get an easy laugh out of Khaled doing some Kid A-style fussing over the track sequencing, and yet We the Best Forever tacitly acknowledges the limitations of its motivational seminar. To put it another way, even Khaled seems to realize that it’s absolutely realistic to feel like the “best forever” for about fifteen or so minutes before the real world intervenes. After steamrolling you with inevitably victory, the degradation is gradual but unquestionable and the surprises are few and not particularly welcome (i.e., it’s 2011 and Baby still finds reasons to rap). And while you, the listener, can and likely will siphon some of the grandiosity herein, it becomes clear that only a certain level of rapper can make Khaled’s prophecies fulfill themselves. C-team chumps like Wale, Ace Hood, Tyga and Meek Mill are not at that level. Worse yet, they barely sound convinced themselves that they’ll ever make it.
Yet through it all, We the Best Forever charms through its own inevitably and unwillingness to acknowledge the diminishing fortunes of hip-hop, the record industry, or hell, our nation as a whole. Though Busta Rhymes is pretty much the only MC here that serves as a link to the flush days of the Clinton administration, the seemingly up-to-the-minute We the Best Forever comes off like a true throwback, reminding of times when a major-label rapper would be mortified with a video budget under six digits, when guys like Memphis Bleek could be ashamed of merely going gold, and all rappers did was win because they were too big to fail.