When you think about it, there's a lot of merit to starting a commercial hip-hop album with a sermon. Most of the genre is about getting on one's hustle, so why not use "getting on" as a governing metaphor? Ergo, the intro to DJ Khaled's new joint, Victory: "In life, there's people that hustle. In life, there's people that grind. And there's We the Best, that make history," Khaled growls in the opening lines of what's essentially a two-and-a-half minute encomium — to himself. ("We the Best" refers to Khaled's label and his 2007 album. It's also a royal "we.") It seems Khaled made the right choice by starting on a crescendo. He set the pace for eleven more blistering tracks that all hew to the theme of struggle and redemption.
Such Calvinist mores might seem out of place in a medium that's known for libertine lyrics and dissolute lifestyles. But Khaled Bin Abdul Khaled is no ordinary rap artist. Based in Miami, he's a mixtape producer and radio personality who somehow became a rap titan in his own right. Victory is the fourth album in Khaled's triumphal discography (his third was called We Global). It's thoroughly gripping, filled with marching-band drum fills, synthetic strings, and cinematic chord voicings. Every song seems to rest on a perfect fifth interval; all of them could easily be a remix for "Chariots of Fire." Khaled even manages to make T. Pain's AutoTune vocals sound big and masculine. (All I do is win win win, Pain crows on the first hook.)
Yet it's unclear to what extent Khaled contributed to the actual artistry, aside from setting the tone. The best tracks — "All I Do Is Win," "Killing Me," Put Your Hands Up," and "Rockin All My Chains On" — succeed more because of the raps than the production. Busta Rhymes snarls wonderfully on the dancehall-influenced "Killing Me." Ludacris' quick-fire cameo on "All I Do Is Win" surpasses most of stuff he records on his own albums. With those guest stars taken into consideration, it's uncertain whether Khaled deserves the self-congratulatory album title. A "victory," yes — but one wrought with a lot of help from friends. (E1)