Anatomy of a Banger: DJ Khaled’s “Holla At Me”


If we’re all lucky, this is the future of this song

I guess it’s been around for a minute, but I heard “Holla at Me” for the first time on Thursday night, driving the rented Dodge Stratus from New York to Virginia, on the way down to my friends’ wedding and absolutely thrilled to finally get to listen to the top eight at 8 on 92Q, Baltimore’s rap station. The Q remains the best rap station I’ve ever heard, far-reaching and good-natured and locally connected to the point where they’ll throw an hour-long old-school Baltimore club mix on at noon on a Wednesday, with virtually no bourgie silk-shirt slow jams except during the obligatory midnight-love show. I don’t have nearly as much fun listening to Hot 97 no matter how many famous people Angie Martinez manages to coax into the studio. I hadn’t heard half the songs on the top eight, and I still don’t know what three of them were since the DJ didn’t say, though they leaned heavily toward the clubby housed-up rap shit that gets major play in Baltimore. The number-one track was T.I.’s “Why You Wanna,” still not a single in most of the world as far as I know, destined to be a huge hit and already one in B-more, a city where a Crystal Waters sample can cause massive outbreaks of local pride. And then there was “Holla At Me.” It starts the same sample of “Looking for the Perfect Beat” that Jermaine Dupri flipped on LL Cool J’s “Control Myself,” but Dupri’s version is clipped and abrasive and antiseptic, so hard and shiny that it almost becomes an endurance test to hear on headphones, amelodic to the point of being hostile in the way that only gazillion-dollar hegemonic pop music can be. “Holla At Me” is just as pop, but it slows down the source material’s oscillating synth blips to the point where they sound warm and natural, almost comforting. And then the rappers start coming on: “Hey! New Lil Wayne?” “No wait, that’s Paul Wall. New Paul Wall featuring Lil Wayne?” “OK, I think that’s Fat Joe now. I have no idea what this is.”

Turns out it’s the first single from DJ Khaled, a Miami radio personality with a few mixtapes out and some connection to the perenially also-ran Terror Squad crew. He’s got an album coming out on Koch, and another track from it leaked a couple of days ago, a pretty good East Coast snarl with recycled Beanie Sigel verse and Jadakiss talking about bumping Michael McDonald in his ride. Khaled’s album might turn out to be good; I have no idea. But even if it’s great, it’ll probably totally be dwarfed by “Holla at Me,” which feels like a monster already. For one thing, it’s a collection of stars that easily equals the one on the fucking garbage-ass “Touch It” remix that gets played every twenty minutes on New York radio: Wayne, Paul, Joe, Rick Ross, Pitbull. Plenty of the track’s appeal comes from the lineup, and so Khaled’s talent for coordinating celebrities’ schedules probably eclipses his talent for producing rap songs. But it’s also pretty striking that all five of these guys totally sublimate their outsized personalities to the track itself, fading away into its boom-stomp until all of them become parts of the beat.

Not one of them is all that stunning on his own. Wayne doesn’t have the room he needs to go off on any of his supremely bizarre “dear Mr. Toilet” tangents, and half his verse is rendered totally incomprehensible in the edited-for-radio version anyway. His flow is all breathless and off-balance, and his big line is so weird that it might not actually mean anything: “I ain’t Will Smith / Nah, I ain’t a Fresh Prince / I’m a young king / I’m a Bun B.” Paul gets in one fascinating line about immigration officials harassing him because he’s riding in an expensive car, one of the most fraught and confusing white-rapper moments since the time I saw Eminem on the tracklisting of a Latino-rappers compilation back in 1999, but then he goes and ruins it with a fucking disgusting line about “leave her back all nutted like Almond Joy,” which has ruined the candy bar for me forever. Fat Joe continues his whole “Hey, you guys from the South loved ‘Lean Back,’ right? That was great, right?’ Now look at my grill that looks like the Puerto Rican flag!” campaign, although the forty-eight shoutouts he got on “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” seem to indicate that he may be on to something there. The best verses come from Rick Ross and Pitbull, both of whom have spent years playing second- or third-fiddle on bright plastic Slip-N-Slide post-bass tracks and know exactly how to put their heads down and ride the beat. But the cumulative effect of all these guys lining up and delivering their parts one by one is pretty visceral, especially in an era when rappers routinely hog tracks and do their best to make it look like an event whenever they work with anyone outside their little cliques. The track works as a sort of agrarian-socialist best case scenario, all these guys contributing what they can so it’ll benefit the whole. It’s not quite “The Symphony” or anything, but it’s roughly one bazillion times better than the “Touch It” remix.

The track’s organic thump resonates with Miami’s bass history and the stranglehold that mutant house music still holds on Baltimore’s black clubs, but it could work just as well in New York, where hopefully an Afrika Bambaataa sample can still trigger memories the same way a dusty jazz loop can. The video just dropped, and it won’t do anything for the song. There are a couple of nice touches (Rick Ross’s windshield decals, Pitbull’s transcendently dorky sunglasses), but it’s an aggressively ordinary affair, shot in muddy camcorder with low-rent cut-up editing and like two dancing girls. Nonetheless, I think this song has legs. I had a fucking great time at the wedding this weekend (congratulations Aimee and Richard!), but there was practically no rap played at the reception (Jay’s verse on “Crazy in Love,” Luda’s verse on “Yeah,” “Baby Got Back,” I think that was it). This song would’ve fit in just fine, and I don’t know if there’s any higher praise for a club track.