It’s been exactly one year and two weeks since Chief Keef was arrested for aiming a gun at a cop, disappearing from the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago in a mythic swirl of rumors that he’d actually been killed. Upon his release from prison, he accordingly released a mixtape called Back from the Dead; on it was “I Don’t Like,” the starkly joyous and seemingly nihilistic song that would thrust Keef into hip-hop’s scrutinizing spotlight.
As they always do, the haters and adulators duked it out via Tweets and long-form ‘think pieces’ alike. Is this 17-year-old rapper what the city needs to draw mainstream attention to its problem with gang violence? Or is he a minstrel who gives face to racist stereotypes, an appalling role model for the countless young black Chicagoans who look towards him for a way out of the hood?
“Chief Concern,” read the front-page headline of the Chicago Sun-Times last October, which sported a photograph of Keef in profile, looking off camera and smirking.
There will doubtfully be a single review of Keef’s debut album Finally Rich that successfully answers the tricky questions posed by his ascent to stardom. It’s difficult to say whether Keef-the-icon is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and I’m not sure how the endless discussion helps the cause one way or the other. This kid has been publicly vilified and lionized to the point where his legend overshadows his music, which is, contrary to expectations, very good.
For apart from concerning for his life—a hearing to decide whether he violated his probation, scheduled for yesterday, was postponed in the eleventh hour—critics have worried for Keef’s music, the mp3s in the eye of the storm. In the Wire, Andrew Nostnitsky predicted the young rapper’s overnight success would “dissolve” his creative potential; in the New York Times, Jon Caramanica anticipated that the mainstream’s obsession with melody would render “impossible” his entry therein.
So Finally Rich, on those fronts, is a miraculous feat. Sosa has developed a unique sound that combines his trademark heavy-lidded and cold-eyed delivery with a pop sensibility that doesn’t betray his gangsta. Drowned in filters and pitch correction that warble his voice till it’s almost unintelligible, he’s figured out how to ride the line between the streets and the charts, succeeding where Waka Flocka failed earlier this year. There is certainly a lot of singing on this album, placing it more in the vocal company of Future’s Pluto than Triple F Life to begin with. But as listeners, we buy into Keef’s rags-to-riches tale and authenticate his thuggish boasts in a way we don’t for a guy like Future. Keef could go full Soulja Boy (and he comes quite close to that) and the accompanying grain of salt wouldn’t be as salty as you might think.
In the first place, Keef’s music has always been fun, even though some would say its subject matter is sociopathic. His producers, helmed by Young Chop, lace him with thunderous beats that work well in the club, restructuring Lex Luger’s formula by leaning towards major chords and tinklier synths. Keef has done a fine job of adapting his flow to their unexpectedly good vibes, revealing an intuition for melody on this album that isn’t as apparent on his mixtapes. The bonus track “Citgo,” a relatively drumless and watery tune, is one of the album’s best.
His lyrics certainly aren’t so deft—prepare for a lot of talk about Cobras and commas—but they exhibit a sort of self-awareness that casts doubt on that whole ‘nihilistic’ thing anyways. “I can’t spell sober,” he mumbles in the intro to the sing-song “Hate Bein’ Sober,” jokingly referencing popular claims that he’s illiterate. And alongside the album’s flagrant misogyny, his daughter is consistently portrayed as his raison d’être throughout all twelve tracks; she earns a mention in the hook of “No Tomorrow,” a ready-for-radio banger, and she’s the namesake of the triumphant “Kay Kay.”
Finally Rich’s titular closing track is introduced by the “Lil Boy” who infamously “Freaks Out When He Finds Out His Favorite Rapper ‘Chief Keef’ Gets Out Of Jail,” as WorldStar put it so eloquently. The original video was so important to Keef’s rapid online rise, and it feels appropriate here. After all, in terms of biographical lore, only Earl Sweatshirt comes close, and unlike Earl, Keef unhesitatingly co-signs the word on the street.
On the beginning end of the album is another YouTube soundbite, but this one’s defensive. Over “Love Sosa” ’s haunting instrumental, a “16 Year Old Boy Goes Off On Chief Keef Haters,” threatening those who “talk sweet” and question Keef’s cred. I feel him, in a sense. To scapegoat Chief Keef as the bane of contemporary hip-hop or Chicago’s black-on-black murder rate—to label him a “bomb” as Rhymefest did, or a seeker of destruction as Lupe did—is to burden this kid with a responsibility he didn’t invite. And on the other hand, to idolize and pigeonhole him as the voice of young Chicago is similarly over the top, as the effects of Kanye’s gratuitous remix prove. There are many ways to read Chief Keef, and let’s not resort to any singular perspective.
But one thing is for sure: musically, Chief Keef has defied expectations. Finally Rich, despite its redundancy and critical apprehension, is a satisfying start. Call it his second resurrection of the year.