If you’re willing to publicly admit to enjoying Chief Keef’s music, you’re going to have to deal with a few uncomfortable realities. For one thing, he certainly presents himself to the world as a pretty loathsome human being: Pointing guns at cops, laughing on Twitter over a teenager’s death, annoying everyone he works with when he no-shows his own video shoots. Of course, there’s context there. For one thing, he’s 17, and every 17-year-old is a loathsome human being. (Sorry, 17-year-olds, but you know it’s true.) And for another, he comes from a place so cold and merciless and utterly devoid of hope that his general disposition makes a lot of sense. David Drake’s long and excellent Complex piece on the rapper spells it all out: This is someone now being paid millions of dollars to rap about his block-to-block neighborhood turf disputes on a massively hyped album, and who now has to worry about the shifting power dynamic between himself and the legitimately terrifying people who put him in a position to succeed. How is a teenager supposed to make any sense of any of this? He isn’t. Instead, he retreats into a weed-cloud of chaos, because that’s where he’s most comfortable, and he treats any outsiders as potential hostiles, because maybe they are. The good news is this: You do not have to hang out with Chief Keef. It doesn’t matter if you like him. And if you’re wringing your hands at his ascent, you’re depriving yourself of the brutally effective hunk of thud-rap that he’s released into the world today. Don’t do that.
Keef, lately, has been taking fire from a few different sides. On one, there’s a grandly clueless Jim DeRogatis piece (not linking it, sorry) that actually draws parallels between Keef’s rise and the Connecticut kindergarten massacre, which is just willfully dumb and risible; these are two contexts with absolutely nothing to do with each other. But the other big line on Keef — and DeRo indulges in some of this too — is that he can’t rap. On any sort of objective metric, that’s a fair criticism, but it ignores the way his voice works in the context of his own music. Making the music that he makes, Chief Keef does not have to verbally dazzle us. If he did, actually, the effect might be lessened. Instead, he charges ahead with a simple, sinister arrogance, sneering and snarling at anyone and everything around him. The way he yells, “Shut the fuck up” on the intro is classic teenager-temper stuff, and so is the rest of the album, albeit done in a more measured and authoritative way. And when his voice swarms at us the way it does on the apocalyptic opener “Love Sosa,” it takes on the same sort of monolithic lizard-brain power as a Black Sabbath riff. He makes music for punching dashboards, and a handful of songs on Finally Rich are basically perfect platonic ideals of that style.
I don’t know what’s happening in major labels right now, but even a year ago, Keef’s big-money debut would’ve been A&R’ed to death. He would’ve been pushed to throw in club songs, reflective R&B love songs, songs about sneakers. Somehow, though, that doesn’t really happen anymore. Young rappers on major labels are getting chances to make albums that present their aesthetics fully and completely. Maybe it’s just that these labels don’t have the energy and money to workshop something to death the way they once did, so they’re just scooping up artists and throwing their shit out there in the hope that something sticks. That’s been a great thing. On the one hand, it gives us something like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, a work of stunning scope and ambition that never pauses to let us catch up. On the other, there’s Finally Rich, a visceral elbow-smash of a record that never rips Keef out of his extremely narrow comfort zone. It has stapled-on big-name guests, but those guests have to force themselves on to Keef’s wavelength, not vice versa. Listening to it keeps you in that same cathartic fuck-shit-up headspace. Tempramentally, its practically a Watain record, and it’s fun to throw it on headphones while you’re holiday shopping and hating all the crowds of people around you.
But the album isn’t exactly the blast of animosity that I’ve been selling it as, either. It has plenty of make-you-bleed threats, but they aren’t the heart of the album. Instead, it’s about being young and rich and high out of your brain. There’s not much joy or exhilaration in the album, but there is a sense of escape, of pushing yourself headlong into oblivion. Keef’s Auto-tuned gargle, when he uses it, isn’t too far removed from the wounded-alien thing that Future does so beautifully. And even if Future’s vulnerability isn’t in there, his spaciness is. Bits and piece of techno sweep work their way in, but they’re detuned and degraded, sounding like the music in a club might sound if you were too fucked up to properly hear it. Mostly, though, the music is awesomely hard and dark and direct, all swells and booms and spine-tingle bells. “Hate Bein Sober” is built on a gasping synth that reminds me of the Art Of Noise’s “Moments In Love.” The endless “haw-haw-haw” refrain on “Laughin To The Bank” is so deliriously annoying that I sort of love it; it’s like something Johnny Rotten would’ve thought of. Keef’s longtime producer Young Chop did most of the album, keeping his ferocious kick firmly in place, and major-label mastering has done wonders for it. The bass levels are high enough that it makes my 2002 Dodge Caravan sound like an exploding mortar.
Finally Rich, then, is probably the best album of the year to use if you want to make your neighbors hate you. On its own merits, it succeeds wildly.
Finally Rich is out now on Interscope.
Other albums of note out this week:
• T.I.’s frequently great, intermittently aimless comeback effort Trouble Man: Heavy Lies The Head.
• The willfully messy old-meets-new Django Unchained soundtrack.
• The Fool’s Gold dance-rap compilation Loosies.
• The-Dream’s studio version of last year’s 1977 mixtape.