Chief Keef's "Finally Rich" Will Be More Influential Than You Could Possibly ImagineBy Colin Small
I tried my hardest to avoid Chief Keef in 2012. I had dismissed his early tracks like “Bang” and “I Don’t Like” as a particularly ineffective limb of the Jeezy/Rozay/Waka megatron that has been lumbering through rap music for more than a couple of years now. The cloud of hype and staunchly adamant support from a small cadre of critics, many of whom hail from his hometown, didn’t serve to convince me and neither did the storm of chatter about gang and domestic violence. By the time Finally Rich finally leaked, I had almost forgotten that we were supposed to be waiting for it to come out.
Oddly, my closed-mindedness seems to have paid off, because Finally Rich is an album that, if nothing else, deserves fresh ears. For one thing, the critical-hype clusterfuck that talked the dude up all year managed, through no fault of their own necessarily, to write a myth about Chief Keef’s importance before most people had taken the time to hear more than two of his songs. Instead of whetting our appetites, the singles were just too easy to label as silly, mindless, or worse. Now, any internet-savvy listeners will find it hard to do anything but get stuck in a polarized saviour/satan dialectic that has already existed for months. So let’s try our hardest to forget all that for the time being.
To put it simply, the album is of its own kind. Need proof? Listen to “Hate Being Sober”, the first two minutes of which consist of Keef riffing on the extended vowels of words like “sober”, “smoker”, and “sosa”. Then, suddenly, 50 Cent jumps on the beat, somehow rapping like its 2004 all over again. He sounds fantastic: cold, melodic, and deliberate, like he’s enjoying himself again for the first time since “Disco Inferno”. The contrast between the 17 year-old Keef and 37 years of Fif’ couldn't be more striking. Maybe that’s the sound of eight years of rap history slapping you in the face, but even so, it sounds like a massive leap from anything that is happening vocally in visible rap music right now. Frankly, all of the rappers featured on Finally Rich rap more like each other than they do like Chief Keef.
Keef raps with a sort of hyper-sincerity, a kind of language that is incredibly serious, yet astoundingly absurd at the same time. While you could relate even French Montana’s moans, featured on the sparkly and high-stakes “Diamonds,” back to something someone might utter in a normal conversational interchange, many of Keef’s expressions are tailored specifically to sound awkward and lifeless. Sometimes, he turns words into air halfway through, clipping them into sharp breaths, as if somebody were punching a corpse, squeezing the last of the air out of its cold lungs. At other times, his speech becomes a series of singular tones, rolling through words like “ballin’” and “tomorrow” like a broken robot.
It would be easy to label his sound as the utterances of a deranged maniac, somebody who makes unique music not through intention, but an inability to control himself like a functional member of society. The truth, however, is the opposite: Finally Rich was generated through a mechanism that quite often engineers influential art: the simple but ingenious combination of two related styles that have not yet been successfully integrated. Rock legend Chuck Berry, for example, became the most influential guitarist in his genre by combining country guitar song structure with blues and jazz guitar inflection. Chief Keef, on a smaller scale of course, combines the subject matter and kayfabe of ‘00s street rap with the purposefully affected vocals and minimalistically impact-oriented structures of Youtube rappers like Lil B and Soulja Boy.
While Lil B somewhat successfully managed to force people to take him seriously by leaning completely into his own eccentricities, Keef has made comical levels of heartlessness both more effective and more entertaining by embracing his zombie-like attitude completely and unflinchingly. Listen, for example, to the strangely masterful “Laughin’ to the Bank.” Sure, the endless “#HAUHAUHAU” refrain is hilarious, but get deeper into the track and you’ll realize that the vicious buzz-saw snare hits and spooky operatic choirs that back it up are as serious as Daniel Day-Lewis, thus turning the Santa routine from silly to straight up ghoulish, more horrorcore than novelty track.
It is not a coincidence, however, that Finally Rich’s Prime Rib selection from the past decade’s best gangsta rappers (and Wiz Khalifa, who's basically the hip-hop equivalent of a LOLCat) manage to sound so fresh with basically every verse. While the album is structured by its extreme, straight-faced absurdity, its not a Lil B mixtape. Its a street rap album with beats crafted to be haunting, mechanical, and energetic, stripping the Lex Luger formula of 2010 to its barest textural elements. They slowly circle the album’s vocalists, measured but intense, with either menace, elation, or both.
While many of the biggest producers of the past decade have relied on dense, detailed sounds, Young Chop and his cohorts make beats that throb with power seemingly through stone-cold restraint and hyper-minimalism alone, using a few low-quality sounds with high levels of nuance. The newly remixed “3Hunna,” for example, consists of not a lot more than two very well-placed trumpet notes repeated in a seven note series. It rolls like a steamroller through molasses, almost too slow for anybody but Keef, the terminally lax Rick Ross somehow sounding like even he is jogging a little too fast for the beat’s heavy momentum.
Keef slides perfectly into this environment because his biggest linguistic influence is the sadly absent Gucci Mane, to whom he has openly paid homage. Keef cuts the muttered brusqueness of Gucci’s most effective songs into small, spaced out, easily digestible pieces. He takes Gucci’s delicate love of muddled vocal textures and turns it into a blunt, powerful instrument, flipping the sublime and precise mechanics of Gucci lines like “Rock star lifestyle, might don't make it / Living life high, everyday clique wasted” into wrecking balls like “I'm cooler than a cooler / Big shouts out to my jeweler / Hit a lick, been rich ever since / Say Chief Sosa broke, that's a rumor.” Thus, Keef completes the formula, filtering the street rap subject matter and deceptively simple language of Gucci’s “Spanish Plug” through the structure of Soulja’s “Turn my Swag On” and the inflection and stubborn spontaneity of Lil B’s “Like a Martian.”
This is one of the ways that influence can begin in gangsta rap music, by rerouting hardheaded raw materials through the newest pop attitudes. It would be easy, for example, to see the aforementioned 50 Cent’s own monumentally popular and influential Get Rich or Die Tryin’ as a well-chilled concoction of Tupac’s thug lover persona and the economical dumb fun of Mase’s Harlem World. It's this kind of perfect mixture of populist style and weighty, volatile substance that spreads influence like the plague, presenting an easily tweaked formula and attracting the attention of anybody from suburban dabblers to stalwart rap fans through undeniable catchiness and cocky, attitude-filled lyrical content. The only group it usually doesn’t please completely is the media.
Will Finally Rich grow the same long tentacles as GRODT did in 2003? That’s a lot harder to say. I was completely uninterested in rap music as a middle schooler in suburban Pennsylvania, but due to radio and TV exposure, enthusiastic classmates, and school bus eavesdropping I could easily have recited the opening lines of “In Da Club” along with everyone else. Could a similarly nerdy and Pink-Floyd-obsessed child do the same for “Love Sosa” today? I don’t know. I haven’t talked to a middle-schooler or been to a middle school since I graduated from middle school. The metrics of rap music success have shifted so completely in the past 10 years that whether suburban 13-year-olds even mean anything anymore is increasingly unclear. Only time can answer these questions.
Regardless, it seems like Chief Keef might have just passed the best rap album of the year behind our backs while we weren’t looking. It is singular and unapologetic and presents a new and deep well of subtle eccentricities to explore with every track. At times it can even seem like “difficult” music: tracks like “Ballin” and “Kay Kay” certainly don’t make themselves easy to like with extended out-of-tune singing and intentionally obtuse loops, but if you're willing to slow to its speed and learn its language, each track on Finally Rich will open like an oyster. It's a near perfect expression of a modest yet solid vision, the only such album in a year full of grand, sprawling epics and overwrought themes and structures. What does that mean? In the end, Finally Rich will continue to be a lot more entertaining.
Colin Small lives in New York and tweets words about rap music on Twitter - @ColinSSmall
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