Chief Keef has experienced a lot since his breakthrough Back from the Dead mixtape in March tens of millions of YouTube views, a major-label deal, G.O.O.D. Music remixing his best-known track but none of it has been due to his ability to rap. More often than not, the 17-year-old Chicago native fills his verses with some of the most basic themes and rhyme patterns this side of Silkk the Shocker’s “No Limit”. And while he rarely writes a line that isnt a direct threat or brag (and a clichéd threat or brag at that), he winds up with something like Im leanin like a kickstand when he does try to say something inventive. Calling Keef polarizing doesnt quite do justice to things. From a technical standpoint, he embodies everything your dad hates about rap and everything Criminal Minded-worshipping old heads hate about raps mainstream in 2012.
Still, its easy to see why Keef has surged to the forefront of not only Chicagos exploding drill scene but rap in general. He works almost exclusively in the rigid, produce-by-numbers trap sound pioneered by Lex Luger in 2010, but hes achieved a relative singularity thanks to his hyper-regional slang (just imagine how many kids have Rap Geniusd Dont make me call D. Rose, boy / He six double-0, boy) and, more crucially, an implacable knack for hooks so catchy theyll be lodged in your head before they come around the second time. The moral? Keefs rapid ascent is not only unsurprising, its justified, too.
There were a couple of big questions floating around the Keef Conversation in the run-up to his major-label debut, Finally Rich: Would he broaden his aesthetic for the album? If not, just how much life would he be able to suck out of his primitive style? The answers, unfortunately, are no and not very much. If theres one thing weve learned about Keef so far, its that hes done a pretty good job putting his own spin on familiar sounds. His executives at Interscope, who obviously saw incredible commercial potential in him from the jump, certainly realize as much, and maybe it wouldve been a bad business decision to request the kid make some major changes over the course of just a few months. But ultimately, Finally Rich exposes the limits of Keefs chosen lane and, worse, doesnt point toward a more favorable route.
With two of its first three songs being Love Sosa and I Dont Like two of the years best rap songs and the other, Hallelujah, featuring some of Keefs most deft rapping yet, the album couldnt open much stronger. Unfortunately, its a deceptive start. On fifth track Hate Bein’ Sober, Keef essentially recycles the melody of the Love Sosa hook, suggesting hes already running out of ideas. Later, on Ballin, he throws a curve by bringing Future-istic Auto-Tune to Leekeleeks beat, but he overcooks it and winds up with a hook thats nothing but gratingly unimaginative: Im ballinnnnnnn / Nigga, Im ballinnnnnnn / Ballinnnnnnn, ballinnnnnnn.
Despite what his live show might have you believe, Keef isnt a particularly collaborative dude; his go-to producer Young Chop handles seven of the 12 beats here, and just as many tracks feature Keef alone on the mic. The bad news is that, besides Lil Reese — who picked up his own record contract on the strength of his I Dont Like verse earlier this year — every guest that does show up fails to leave much of an impression. As Im writing this sentence, Ive listened to Hate Bein’ Sober 11 times, and offhand I cant remember a single line from either 50 Cents or Wiz Khalifas verse. And though Rick Ross has been increasingly dexterous as an MC these past few years check his cameo on Diddy-Dirty Moneys Angels his appearance on the 3Hunna remix here is one of his stiffest ever. At the moment, Keef is too insular an MC to carry out even a 45-minute album on his own, and the other rappers he works with here dont give him nearly enough support.
After Keef got out of prison around last New Years Day after serving a few weeks for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer, a video was posted on WorldStarHipHop in which a young boy goes absolutely nuts with joy when he finds out his favorite rapper is free. Audio from that clip is sampled on the final track here, Finally Rich, but its appearance is almost ironic once it shows up it just seems unlikely that that kid would react with such fervor to the news if these were the only Keef songs hed heard. Finally Rich never strikes as vital as a whole, and since the guy on its cover has been called hip-hops next big thing by at least one publication, thats a big problem.
Essential Tracks: Love Sosa, I Dont Like