Chief Keef Thrives In Exile

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

Chief Keef Thrives In Exile

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

Chief Keef can’t go back to Chicago. The rapper has outstanding warrants in his hometown, but the authorities in Chicago have enmities against Keef that go deeper than that. Back when he still lived in Chicago, before he relocated to Los Angeles, Keef was effectively banned from performing in his own town; I’ve got friends in Chicago who have told me about all the shows that were shut down before they had a chance to take place. Two years ago, Keef wanted to do a stop-the-violence benefit show, and he was going to perform live via hologram, beaming in his likeness from Los Angeles. And even that wasn’t allowed to happen. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanual put out a statement decrying Keef. And when Keef tried to move the show to the neighboring city of Hammond, Indiana, his performance was famously shut down by police one song in. If police could’ve arrested the hologram, they probably would’ve done it.

It’s a sad irony: The young prince of Chicago rap, exiled from his own city even in ephemeral ghost-form. Six years ago, when Keef’s raw and delirious teenage gun-rap first went viral, he kicked off a fury of excitement in his hometown. The whole drill scene, which already existed, exploded into the national consciousness in the wake of the “Don’t Like” video, and tons of rappers got major-label contracts — even if most of them, including Keef himself, have since been dropped from those contracts. And it’s hard to believe that Chicago rap wave that supplanted drill — the kids from the after-school freestyle circuit — would’ve broken huge without Keef’s example. People like to hold Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa up as the antithesis to Keef, but Chance shouted Keef out on “Juice,” his breakout song, and Mensa featured Keef on The Autobiography, the album he released earlier this year.

And far beyond Chicago, Keef’s influence reverberates. His wobbling, dead-eyed Auto-Tune melodies have had an incalculable impact on Atlanta trap, for instance. Young Atlanta stars like Lil Baby sound more like Keef than they do like Gucci Mane or Future or even Quavo, and Keef is almost certainly a primary source for 21 Savage’s flattened ferocity. Meanwhile, this year’s wave of SoundCloud rap kids must’ve learned how to convey murky, lo-fi violence from a master of the form. I know a couple of music critics who have argued, pretty convincingly, that Post Malone’s entire style sprung from “Citgo,” a deep cut from Keef’s 2012 Finally Rich album. And think about the way the teenage Texan rapper Tay-K rode notoriety to stardom, recording his viral 2017 hit “The Race” while on the run after being charged with murder.

And while all these other rappers were learning from his influence, Keef was at home in Los Angeles, continuing to crank out more music, most of it increasingly weird and gooey and personal. It hasn’t all been like that; Keef’s 2014 churning, gothic cult hit “Faneto” is as immediate as anything he recorded when he still had his Interscope contract. But some of Keef’s more disorienting music has its own kind of force. Earlier this year, Keef released Thot Breaker, a deeply strange and fascinating mixtape. It’s all miasmic haze, Keef crooning soft melodies through so much Auto-Tune that only a trace of his humanity remains. Keef sings a lot about sex on Thot Breaker, but he sings about love, too, and he does it sincerely: “Do you wanna hold haaaands?” It’s warped, gooey music, light years removed from the martial anthems that Keef came up making. But it’s nearly as powerful, and Thot Breaker has kept me coming back all year.

Last week, Keef released a new tape called Dedicated. It’s a sort-of return to form, an album full of spartan tough-talk over hammering, minimal synth-beats. But Keef isn’t barking, as he once was. Instead, he mutters everything under his breath, leaving enough open space that the end result sounds almost as strange and dreamlike as Thot Breaker. Keef still isn’t a great rapper in classical terms, but I like seeing the way his mind works in the sorts of juxtapositions that now appear in his lyrics: “Let me see if Gucci got this top in my size / All that I got is my glock and my pride.” (He also rhymes “Christina Milian” with “pop me a wheelie on,” which is both good and bad.) Dedication is still oblique, personal music, but with its A Boogie and Lil Yachty guest appearances, it feels more connected with what’s happening in rap than anything Keef’s done lately. He’s still off on his own island, but at least he’s picking up the odd radio signal these days.

Keef is still messy. He’s getting arrested for dumb reasons — weed at an airport, robbing a producer. But his music continues to quietly branch out in all these different directions, and the power of what he was doing six years ago continues to help shape the new rap music that we’re hearing. Keef is still young. He’s just 22, which means he’s been famous for more than a quarter of his life. He could still go on to do great things. But if he keeps cranking out another few mixtapes of fascinating, inscrutable rap music a couple of times a year, that’s fine, too.


1. Scarface – “Black Still”
One of rap’s elder gods resurrects a classic and uses it to forcefully, passionately, virtuosically rip apart everything wrong with America today. I’m not one to get all “kids these days,” but it would be nice if any of the rappers who are half Scarface’s age were able to summon fire like this.

2. Tee Grizzley & Lil Durk – “What Yo City Like?”
Hammering, urgent talk from two hungry young rappers whose hometowns — Detroit and Chicago, respectively — really are as rough as they claim. I’m a sucker for tag-team verses, and for rappers who pledge to send shooters to protect each other when they come visit.

3. AD – “PreHeat”
AD is a great snarling rap monster, and I was happy with him in that role. But when he spends a whole song in an effortless double-time, it’s a cool sign that there’s more to him.

4. Lil Baby – “All Of A Sudden” (Feat. Moneybagg Yo)
Lil Baby, the man with the shittiest and most generic rap name since Young Thug, has mostly found regional Atlanta stardom by being all blurry and melodic. But on this track, he shows that he’s capable of getting on Moneybagg Yo’s level and doing something grounded and muscular.

5. Boosie Badazz – “Cocaine Fever”
“Hurt me to my heart when my favorite uncle smoked the crack rock / Now his Super Bowl ring gone, for the crack rock.” Boosie kicks us in the collective soul once again.


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