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Is DJ Khaled ahead of his time?

| Thursday, February 13, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

The sun has set off the coast of Miami, Florida and Khaled Mohamed Khaled is lost at sea. On a jet ski.

“Aight, it’s dark,” Khaled tells his Snapchat audience in one video. “In a minute, there ain’t gonna be no lights to navigate us to where we need to go.”

As the sky darkens, Khaled bestows a piece of life advice: “The key is not to drive your jet ski in the dark.”

Viral content such as this has made DJ Khaled an inescapable celebrity, though the attention is not always positive. While Khaled’s social media dominance is irrefutable, many question his merits as a musician. It is true that DJ Khaled has little hand in the songs he releases; a team of producers creates his music, and Khaled merely contributes a catchphrase soundbite: “Major key!” “Another one!” “Bless up!”

However, to refute DJ Khaled’s musicianship is to deny the direction that music is headed. In the 20th century, artists such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Elton John hired outside songwriters. Today, nobody questions their musicianship. Furthermore, since the late ’90s, singers have used autotune to digitally alter their voices, replacing the need for singing talent; at its inception, autotune carried a stigma, but today, it is ubiquitous. Additional industry trends — ghost production, sampling, etc. — further indicate a shift away from self-made musicianship.

The only logical end of this shift is a “post-creation” era of musicianship. The post-creation musician plays a curatorial role, cultivating an image rather than sweating through songwriting and production. In other words, the post-creation musician is DJ Khaled. While his production team puts together music, Khaled rides his jet ski around Miami making content. And if he likes the album his team has made, he shouts out his seal of approval — “Major Key!” — and releases the songs to his fans.

Of course, if DJ Khaled’s music were bad, his method would fail. But Khaled’s music is consistently good — or more precisely, good enough. Nearly every album in his discography has been met with middling-to-mildly-positive critical reception. And in the music industry, that is what keeps a star burning.

This consistency is not limited to Khaled himself, but rather a direct product of the DJ Khaled music-making model. Music by committee is rarely exceptional, but with a strong-enough committee, the output can be satisfactory. Furthermore, while singer-songwriters are prone to inspiration ebbs and flows, committees always gravitate toward a mean. Also of note, music by committee can be churned out constantly, even when the artist is on tour or otherwise occupied.

How long DJ Khaled will maintain his grip on the music industry is uncertain. Khaled has built much of his celebrity through social media, which is notoriously fickle. Today, he is a master of Snapchat storytelling. But tomorrow, as other platforms dominate the social media space, Khaled will have to adapt — and who knows how his skills will translate?

Yet, the likelier cause of DJ Khaled’s decline is his own replicable success story. Post-creation musicianship does not require musical talent. It requires only an eye for viral content and self-branding. Thus, as conventional celebrities and lagging pop stars cross over into post-creation musicianship, Khaled will lose his edge over the rest of the music industry. The next superstar bigger than Khaled to replicate his method will eclipse his music industry dominance.

Today, however, the music industry is not full of DJ Khaleds — just the one. In an industry that has not yet recognized the merits of his method, Khaled has no contenders. Maybe he likes it that way. Because as long as the music industry lags behind his innovation, DJ Khaled will sit at the top of the charts, a superstar ahead of his time. “Bless up!”

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