Lil Keed Was Free

Shane McCauley

Lil Keed Was Free

Shane McCauley

Lil Keed, the Atlanta rapper who died this past weekend at the age of 24, got famous on the strength of a mixtape series called Trapped On Cleveland. There’s nothing figurative about that title. Lil Keed, born Raqhid Jevon Render, grew up near Cleveland Avenue, a dangerous part of southeast Atlanta. If you come from a place like that, your odds of getting out are not good. If you happen to come from Cleveland Avenue, your role models for success might be the rappers who once called that neighborhood home — figures like Cash Out, Young Scooter, and most crucially Young Thug. Thug might be the single most influential figure in rap over the past decade. Dozens of nationally famous rappers have used Thug’s style as a blueprint, and Lil Keed was one of them. But Keed pushed Young Thug’s style further than any of his peers, using it to form his own wild and expressive musical language. Keed might’ve been trapped on Cleveland, but he built a whole world from the sounds that were floating in the air around him.

Young Thug didn’t emerge fully formed out of the ether. Instead, he did what every game-changing rapper before him has done. He took influence from the rappers that he heard when he was young, and he twisted those influences, people like Lil Wayne and Future, into strange new shapes. Thug used elements of those other rappers’ styles — free-associative alien weirdness from Wayne, Auto-Tuned melodic croak from Future — and he made them scattered and abstract. He made scrambled, ecstatic musical scribbles that could be silly and arty and catchy and hard at the same time. In doing so, Young Thug became an influence himself. If you were to make a list of rappers who have moved onto the A-list in the past few years, most of those names — Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Gunna, Playboi Carti, Roddy Ricch — simply could not exist without Young Thug. But where most of those big stars have subtly tweaked Thug’s style to their own ends, Lil Keed used that style as a springboard into the unknown.

When you listen to Lil Keed, what really lands isn’t the lyrics. A lot of the time, those lyrics weren’t especially easy to decipher anyway. Instead, for Keed, it’s how he uses his voice — the way a relatively normal verse could suddenly explode into rainbow-colored shards. Keed would come up with conventional hooks or cadences, and then he would subvert them completely. His voice would jump up into a broken falsetto, and suddenly he’d be darting all around the beat, coming up with mocking singsong melodies or squeaking hard against the pocket. Listening to someone like Keed can be a bit baffling sometimes. You have to ask: How does someone think to do this on a beat? What gives you the idea to slip-slide ecstatically in ways that don’t fully make sense? Keed never sounded like he was forcing that weirdness. Instead, he seemed to be living in the moment, following a muse that only he understood.

Keed was six years younger than Young Thug, and I have to imagine that his weirdness sprang, at least in part, from living in the same area as Young Thug when Thug was becoming a star. Keed was born in 1998, so he never knew a moment when Atlanta wasn’t near the center of the rap landscape. Trap music became the default sound of Atlanta when Keed was a toddler. When Thug released the first I Came From Nothing mixtape, Lil Keed would’ve been 13 years old. That means that Thug’s style would’ve simply been part of the atmosphere when Keed was a kid. Keed fully internalized Thug’s style, made it his own, and did his own things with it. And Young Thug embraced Lil Keed, just as he embraced so many of his other stylistic descendants.

Lil Keed started making noise in Atlanta when he was still a teenager. He was 19 when he came out with the first Trapped On Cleveland mixtape. Within a year, Keed’s breakout single “Nameless” had become a grassroots hit, and Thug had signed Keed to his YSL label. (“Nameless” eventually went gold; to date, it’s the only Keed release that’s gotten any kind of RIAA certification.) It’s hard to imagine the kind of confidence-boost it might be when the guy who you grew up loving, the big star who comes from your own neighborhood, embraces you and welcomes you into the fold. I don’t know if Keed needed that boost, but I do know that Keed made the most of it. As he leveled up, Keed found himself among stars. 2020’s Trapped On Cleveland 3, the last mixtape that Keed released while he was alive, has guest appearances from people like Future and Lil Baby and Travis Scott. But Lil Keed never sounded intimidated. If anything, he sounded excited to have a bigger platform for his scattered euphoria.

In his time on YSL, Keed never rose past the level of internet cult hero. His chaotic style got a whole lot of social-media love, but he didn’t really make hits. Those hits might’ve eventually arrived. I don’t know if I would’ve ever expected Young Thug to make the leap into full-on stardom, but he’s now part of the firmament — a guy who’s rapped on multiple pop chart-toppers. The same could’ve easily happened for Lil Keed. In 2020, XXL made Keed a part of its Freshman class. When Keed rapped in one of those XXL cyphers, he did it alongside Polo G and Jack Harlow, two rappers who have since made #1 hits of their own.

The news of Lil Keed’s death came along during what was already a surreal moment for Atlanta rap. A few days before Keed’s passing, police indicted Young Thug, Gunna, and 26 of their associates on RICO charges. Prosecutors claimed that YSL was actually a Blood-affiliated street gang that Thug had co-founded in the Cleveland Avenue neighborhood in 2013. Thug is facing a whole string of felony charges, and he and Gunna have both been denied bond. Prosectors are using Thug and Gunna’s music and social-media posts in their cases, arguing that the two rappers have used their positions to advance the interests of YSL. From a distance, the whole case looks like starfucking overreach — authorities targeting a culture rather than an actual criminal organization. Given that Thug and Gunna are two of the biggest stars in rap and that Gunna’s DS4Ever is one of the most successful albums of this year so far, the case still seems likely to have a huge impact on rap itself.

Lil Keed was not one of the people swept up in those YSL indictments. Before his death, Keed posted in defense of YSL on Instagram, claiming that “YSL is a family” and that “YSL is not a gang.” At this point, the circumstances of Keed’s death haven’t officially been revealed, but it seems that it was health-related, not violent. Keed’s death and the charges against YSL don’t appear to have anything to do with each other, but their confluence makes the whole story feel even more tragic. Keed won’t even get the proper sendoff that he deserves because so many of his allies are locked up.

Lil Keed will probably always be remembered as someone with tremendous unfulfilled potential, as a hugely promising young artist who departed before he could meet his destiny. But Keed’s whole story is a triumph, not a failure. While he was alive, Keed displayed the kind of imagination that a rough upbringing can’t squash. He took the sound of his moment, and he used it to explore new galaxies. Lil Keed was never trapped anywhere. He was free.


1. Kenzo B – “The Realest”
I love it when I hear some New York drill shit that has the same swagger and snarl as the classic New York rap that I loved when I was young. Musical trends can and should continue shifting, but “The Realest” has that real Tunnel-banger energy, at least until the B.o.B. sample comes in at the end. That part is pretty fun, too. (Shout out to Pitchfork’s Al Pierre for spotlighting this one.)

2. Bizzy Banks – “Don’t Know How To Act”
Brian Wilson’s “Our Prayer” should not work in a Brooklyn drill context, but it does, and I’m glad it does.

3. Lethal Bizzle – “Dapper Dan” (Feat. Giggs & A92 DBO)
Grime will never die.

4. 2 Eleven & TF – “Blackout” (Feat. Conway The Machine)
I want more West Coast rappers jumping on the Griselda wave. I don’t know why it works, but it always does.

5. DaBoii – “Head Huncho”
DaBoii always lets that little squeak into his delivery, and that squeak tells you that he is offended by your existence. It’s the best.


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