Slurred, disjointed braggadocio drenched in bouncy, delayed autotune. Punchy ad-libs peppered sporadically like trumpeted staccatos. Synth heavy beats sliding around, as amorphous as a gust of propane that has escaped from a steel tank.
All of these and more are characteristic of your average banger issued by Chief Keef, christened Keith Cozart on the 15th of August, 20 years ago. The Chicago native broke into the consciousness and headphones of rap fans everywhere upon the release of his 2012 mixtape Back From the Dead. “I Don’t Like,” a track from the aforementioned mixtape, quickly went viral, attracting the attention of industry mainstay and hit-maker Kanye West; the rest has been history.
Much of the discussion surrounding Keef’s work has just addressed its “weird” nature. Noisey, Fact Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and more have all touched on the experimental territory the rapper has treaded since his increasing departure from the drill-rap conventions he himself was largely responsible for establishing, along with his early producer Yung Chop. What all of these talking heads seem to miss is that Keef seems to have direction with his experimentalism, despite the haphazard quality of many of his releases.
Not unlike the place “demo tape” releases have held in DIY, guitar-centric music scenes, mixtapes in the modern rap-sphere serve as a testing tool for an artist to shop an artistic direction without potentially sacrificing major marketing and recording budgets. Additionally, they’re useful for keeping core fanbases happy and having sufficient material for live shows. Keef’s most far-out projects have been released through the mixtape format, including the unique 2014 sequel to Keef’s breakthrough, Back From the Dead 2.
This one’s a monster:
Back From the Dead 2 showcases Keef’s most drawn out yet consistent flows. He allows lines room to breathe, beautiful musical flourishes to shine, and quickly followed by sometimes hilarious ad-libs that are always intensely effective.
Young Thug, a contemporary of Keef’s, has been getting press for what many perceive to be a “gibberish”-based rapping style. His, and Keef’s in a similar fashion, have been perceived to actually be captivating takes on regional vernacular filtered through very expressionistic flow-forms, with Thug even having been known to walk into the recording booth with doodles of shapes and concepts rather than lyric books.
This vocal approach has been termed “warble-rap”, which places more emphasis on feeling than New York-based rap conventions of technical ability. Warble rap follows in the storied tradition of long time trap-rapper Gucci Mane, who has worked as a collaborator and mentor to both artists.
Of course, beats play a role in a song’s feeling. Keef is at the helm of 16 of the 20 tracks, all heavily indebted to a sound quality not commonly attributed to rap, not to mention hardcore rap – psychedelic. Chief Keef’s psychedelia is less about kaleidoscopes and Flower Power and more about the disorienting perspective acquired as a product of war-torn streets. Rugged individualism by way of survival rather than personal philosophy. Sound collages of machine gun shots litter many of the tracks.
Upon listening to the long awaited, retail mixtape Bang 3, one can observe the scaled down the eccentricities from much of his 2013-early 2015 output. Despite that, his adventurous spirit can still be seen in the three random songs he posted on October 19th:
Much has been said about Keef’s place in the industry. From fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s criticism of his hyper-violent lyrical content to persistent concerns that his short-lived dalliance with Interscope Records was manipulative, Keef’s name has constantly been pulled since his entrance into the high stakes arena of the rap business.
And the concerns have all had some level of validity. As Keef was achieving stardom, Chicago was constantly in the news due to its status as what Kanye West referred to as being the “Murder Capital”. Much of the publicity focused on post-2010 figures, although Chicago has had an endemic problem with fatal violence since the late 1960’s. Since 2000 the average annual murder rates are lower than those as recent as the 1990’s.
That being said, out-of-touch community leaders and politicians from Chicago seem to lack empathy for someone who is a result of the issue. Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel and another local mayor shut down a benefit concert in Chicago that was to feature a hologram of Keef citing concerns over violence. It was more of a political move to seem “tough on crime” than anything else. It turned out to be a moot point, as the benefit, and the holographic performance, was in condemnation of gun violence and sought to assist recent victims of the phenomenon. So who is in the wrong, the guy who came from a hyper-violent world talking about it frankly and artistically, or the label bosses and politicians who use the guy to benefit themselves?
King Sosa is constantly seeking the Sound in an age where artistic exploration is often synonymous with the sacrifice of fan loyalty. For that, all fans of forward-thinking rap should be thanking him.