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 isn’t a direct threat or brag (and a clichéd threat or brag at that), he winds up with something like “I’m leanin’ like a kickstand” when he does try to say something inventive. Calling Keef polarizing doesn’t 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 rap’s mainstream in 2012.
Still, it’s easy to see why Keef has surged to the forefront of not only Chicago’s 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 he’s achieved a relative singularity thanks to his hyper-regional slang (just imagine how many kids have Rap Genius’d “Don’t make me call D. Rose, boy / He six double-0, boy”) and, more crucially, an implacable knack for hooks so catchy they’ll be lodged in your head before they come around the second time. The moral? Keef’s rapid ascent is not only unsurprising, it’s 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 there’s one thing we’ve learned about Keef so far, it’s that he’s 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 would’ve 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 Keef’s chosen lane and, worse, doesn’t point toward a more favorable route.
With two of its first three songs being “Love Sosa” and “I Don’t Like” – two of the year’s best rap songs – and the other, “Hallelujah”, featuring some of Keef’s most deft rapping yet, the album couldn’t open much stronger. Unfortunately, it’s a deceptive start. On fifth track “Hate Bein’ Sober”, Keef essentially recycles the melody of the “Love Sosa” hook, suggesting he’s already running out of ideas. Later, on “Ballin’”, he throws a curve by bringing Future-istic Auto-Tune to Leekeleek’s beat, but he overcooks it and winds up with a hook that’s nothing but gratingly unimaginative: “I’m ballinnnnnnn’ / Nigga, I’m ballinnnnnnn’ / Ballinnnnnnn’, ballinnnnnnn’.”
Despite what his live show might have you believe, Keef isn’t 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 Don’t Like” verse earlier this year — every guest that does show up fails to leave much of an impression. As I’m writing this sentence, I’ve listened to “Hate Bein’ Sober” 11 times, and offhand I can’t remember a single line from either 50 Cent’s or Wiz Khalifa’s verse. And though Rick Ross has been increasingly dexterous as an MC these past few years – check his cameo on Diddy-Dirty Money’s “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 don’t give him nearly enough support.
After Keef got out of prison around last New Year’s 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 he’d heard. Finally Rich never strikes as vital as a whole, and since the guy on its cover has been called “hip-hop’s next big thing” by at least one publication, that’s a big problem.
Essential Tracks: “Love Sosa”, “I Don’t Like”