All artwork by Mikey Espinosa.
In 2011, DJ Khaled signed to Cash Money Records. At the time, they formed a rap triumvirate with G.O.O.D. Music and Maybach Music, dominating most of the charts with an impregnable coterie of talent. He had come off of "All I Do Is Win" the previous year, so the guy was feeling pretty good about himself and was apparently starting to really think about how he wanted to be heard. "I don't mind managing artists," Khaled said in a contemporary interview with Al Lindstrom, "but I'm in the studio a lot… That's why when you hear a Khaled record, it's a Khaled record."
He then proceeded to misuse/coin the word "anthematic" but the point is clear: Khaled cared and still cares about the specific way his songs impact. More so, he wants the production of those songs to contribute to his single-minded quest for the biggest rap or R&B single, an approach which can lead to bloat but has recently paid dividends for Khaled. But when you're talking "big," when you're talking "weight," the only song that needs to be brought up is Khaled's second classic, "I'm on One."
More than half a decade after its release, the Drake, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross-featuring "I'm on One" remains a colossus that simply cannot be scaled. It feels huge; listening to it on even the most modest of sound systems feels like trying to stare up at a mountain's peak from its foothills. Much of that power is from T-Minus' unique production vision. Sleek and cybernetic, he and his beatmaking partner Nikhil "Kromatik" Seetharam painted an endless vista with watercolours where Lex Luger and his many clones used thick blotches. That's not to discount Lex's tremendous influence, but a lot has to be said for the dynamic restraint that T-Minus and Kromatik used, aided of course by 40's aqueous mixing touches. It's about as Torontonian a beat as you can get. I, personally, have about a dozen attempts at remaking it collecting dust in my hard drive.
The composition of "I'm on One" also goes a long way towards its mood. As that instantly recognizable synth riff weaves its way through, an unchanging constant, the chord progression steadily ascends, with a slight catch. It begins on an E minor to G major motion–the "major lift" that another Canadian icon once sang about–but reaches further upwards and lands on a B minor, placing the listener in less uplifting minor-key territory. Harmonically, the song would actually be a sad one if it wasn't for the last minute scramble to its root chord and home key of D major. This complicated, shaded emotion is at the core of "I'm on One" and its performers perfectly compliment that.
To deny Drake as being central to this song and its success is folly: his branding is all over it and its producers were or are still part of the in-house OVO team. Drake's introduction, eight bars of sighing melody, has him gently touching down in the song's jagged landscape instead of hitting the ground running. It's audacious and the probably the moment most responsible–even more than songs like "Karaoke"–for the "softest in the game" reputation that Drake spent years tearing down. Ultimately, with rap well in the midst of a more melodic era, his decision to go for a lighter approach works in retrospect. It marked a territory in more ways than one, however. "All I care about is money and the city that I'm from" would be Drake's first big move towards staking a claim as not just the biggest Toronto rapper, but the only Toronto rapper anyone needed to know or care about. At the time, it was probably true, and "I'm on One" confirmed it.
At a time when Toronto rap was still finding itself, "I'm on One" and its booming, brooding sound pointed the way forward. This was Toronto's coming-out moment as a city that produces robust and interesting rap music that could go toe-to-toe with the best American imports. It first spread to Drake's later material; the DNA of this song can be found in the confident bustle of "Headlines" as well as T-Minus' similarly humongous beats for "HYFR" and "We'll Be Fine." In a sense, "I'm on One" sounds kind of like Toronto itself, a sonic skyline brimming with inviting possibility and excitement but with shadows lurking in its crevasses.
Whether intentionally or not, much the the #6ixside sound that followed ran with at least one of the stems that made up the song. Its earnestness can be heard in Sean Leon, its propulsive, anthemic qualities in Jazz Cartier, and its looming darkness in Jimmy Prime. But because nothing is bigger than "I'm on One," it encapsulated all of these and more in one tone poem that represented Toronto. Once that chorus rushed in and one of Drake's best and most definitive hooks took hold, it was over: the song, the rapper, and the city were inextricably linked together.
But let's not forget what the others contribute. Rick Ross, opulent in his beat choices and turns of phrase, refers to his weed as "purple flowers" but he's already feeling the burning heat in his chest when he smokes. Still, Rozay is in his dream land, walking the clouds while his adversaries below curse the sight of the red soles on his Louboutin shoes. By contrast, Lil Wayne is a negative, seething presence. "I walk around the club, fuck everybody." He was in the middle of the distended, disastrous Carter IV campaign and his frustration may have informed his defiant verse. Despite surroundings that suggest a victory lap, these men are at odds with the excesses of their fame, conflicted and unhappy. To borrow a later Khaled-ism, they're all suffering from success, but damn, does it ever sound amazing.
The "I made it" anthem and the regretful weeper are two common tropes in rap but "I'm on One" fuses elements from both in a way that few other songs have done in order to express triumph. "I'm on One" is the sound of not only having made it but also the grim apprehension and fear that comes with success. What's next? How do I keep the momentum going? Do I like what's happening to me? It is the rare song that can get you pumped while inducing thoughtful looks out of rainy windows.
These ruminations helped fuel Drake, Wayne, and Ross back then and if anything, the three are more troubled now. Between Wayne's label woes, Drake's apparent artistic rut, and Ross almost totally falling off, the song's underlying melancholy seems to have become something of a fulfilled prophecy. If anything, that just makes it more powerful. "I'm on One" is what it sounds like to nearly reach the top, look down, and feel both exhilaration and vertigo from the view. Neither Khaled nor Drake, nor, possibly, all of Toronto has bettered it but who could? We're all only getting older, after all.
Phil hasn't gone this hard since he was eighteen. Follow him on Twitter.