How We the Best Got Better: DJ Khaled's 'Suffering From Success' Turns 5`
The DNA of the Khaled persona we all know & love started here.
In this world nothing is certain but death, taxes and DJ Khaled.
Few have suffered for their art quite like DJ Khaled. In a 2012 interview with MTV News, Khaled explained how a sudden visit to a doctor's office turned into the impetus for his seventh studio album. The purpose of the visit was to determine the cause of a growing bald spot on Khaled's beard. After receiving his prognosis, the doctor put her arm on Khaled’s shoulder and assured him, “Son, you’re suffering from success."
Only five years later and the album’s title Suffering from Success seems like something of an understatement—and not just because Khaled would Instagram a hospitalization (again) in November 2013 for dehydration, then a third time in October 2014 for exhaustion. The moment is an understatement because unbeknownst to Khaled, this would represent one of his lowest critical and commercial periods ever. It would become one of the last moments—and his last on Cash Money—before he became as big a star as the artists he employed. But the DNA of the Khaled persona that most credit to Snapchat and fatherhood actually began here.
The opening of the album sees Khaled repurposing President Obama's entrance to the 2013 Correspondents’ Dinner, during which he walked out to "All I Do Is Win" while sending strays shots at Rush Limbaugh. It’s a surreal moment of Khaled crashing into a pop culture stratosphere rarely reserved for hip-hop artists. "It represents winners, and Obama's a winner, I'm a winner, you're a winner. And it represents the people, and it's love and excitement, so shout-out to Obama," Khaled said.
That would be enough to start any album. But by time Future bellows "the price of fame, fuck fame" on the Young Chop produced and Ace Hood assisted title track, DJ Khaled's trapped the listener in the A&Ring of a depraved mind. Future and Ace Hood’s musings on the exhaustion that comes with celebrity is ironic in hindsight, but makes sense in context. While Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” had catapulted both of them up the Hot 100, Future was only just coming off the mild success of his debut album Pluto. It’s obvious why Khaled would have Future and Ace Hood try to duplicate their “Bugatti” chemistry on “Suffering from Success” and “Blackball." Neither came close to the heights of “Bugatti” but not for lack of trying. The J.U.S.T.I.C.E League produced “Blackball” feels like a spiritual successor to “Bugatti"; It provides Future and Ace Hood with the pulsing drums, claps, and ominous momentum their collaborations are known for. The album’s production and collaboration feel like a time capsule between the blog era and slow creep of SoundCloud. Where the last semblance of big budget rap albums were dying off before a wave of Future’s successors flooded hip-hop.
Suffering from Success is one long lesson in the audacity of air horns, mid-aughts synths, and Lex Luger type hi-hats; it's one where Khaled names a song "I Feel Like Pac / I Feel Like Biggie," in which none of the rappers (Rick Ross, T.I., Meek Mill) are actually from New York or Los Angeles. The song even begins with Diddy, Swizz, and Khaled performing the most expensive string of ad-libs probably ever. The follow up, “You Don’t Want These Problems” is equally as ostentatious as the song before it. DJ Khaled and Timbaland helm what is the most bizzare production on the album; it mixes the trap orchestration of the 2010s and electric guitar flourishes that are most likely a Timbaland byproduct. Even with all that star power it’s still just a backdrop for 2 Chainz delivering the songs most memorable line, “They slept on me, I stopped selling work and started selling them coffee.”
The album's two lead singles are easily some of the strangest songs on the album in inception rather than sound. The first single, "No New Friends" was intended to be a "Started from the Bottom" remix (the original even had Future interpolating parts of C-Murda’s “Down for my N*ggaz” on the outro). Khaled eventually explained the song’s origins to Fader: "I was in the studio working on my upcoming album, Suffering from Success, and Drake was in another room and we bumped into each other [...] Eventually, I went in his room and he had the skeleton of 'No New Friends,' and I was like, 'That's it! We gotta finish it now.'
When Fader inquired about Khaled's ability to just "ask" Drake for a song, he explained: "In this music game, to be a No. 1 exec you gotta find the hits. Who got 'em?' In many ways, that's the genius of DJ Khaled, doing the most obvious thing to get the most obvious result; the shortest distance between two points—a summer anthem—is Drake.
Khaled’s tenure with YMCMB was a weird time. It coincided with the label’s chart dominance and some of his biggest singles came from that allegiance. Maybe it’s why he decided to cement that relationship by using his second single “I Wanna Be With You” to propose to label matriarch Nicki Minaj. It was on MTV News that Khaled would propose with a $50,000 ring. “We got the same symptoms, we're both suffering from success[...] [If] you gotta take your time and think about it, I overstand,” he said. Leave it to Khaled to flawlessly stay on brand during a proposal while simultaneously promoting a Future, Nicki Minaj, and Rick Ross love song. The actual song sees Future slinking back into his “Turn On the Lights” comfort zone. The songs synths could only be described as “2013," a simpler time when Future and Nicki were both still flirting with the earnest sides of R&B. It was before the heartbreak of Monster, where “Buying purses to easy, paying bills to easy, I wanna be with you,” was typical of a Future hook. It was DJ Khaled’s version of a love song, where the percussion has to be club ready and a Rick Ross feature is mandatory.
Suffering from Success isn’t Khaled’s biggest album or most important, by any stretch. In many ways it’s a relic of a time before fans had constant access to rappers and DJs. Khaled was both a pioneer and one of the biggest benefactors of the 24 hour access social media brought to rap. He was using every emergency room visit as an IG background long before documenting getting lost at sea. Yet through all of the turmoil Khaled’s suffering eventually slowed, but his success never did.
Some albums are classics and some are reminders of what radio was like before streaming playlists. DJ Khaled albums are time capsules. Time capsules that remind us of when Drake’s toughest disses were about who couldn’t be his friend. They remind us of the time when Future was more lothario than scorned lover. Or a time when Nicki’s biggest worry was fending off DJ Khaled publicity stunts. In short, a time when rappers were happy or at least happier.
DJ Khaled may have been suffering, but at least it was for all the right reasons.
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