Just about anyone living in this world today with eyes can see that over the years hip-hop has been becoming more and more like a full on car crash soap opera. And with the presence of the internet you just can’t seem to look away or escape it. The sagas of gossip, violent posturing and hilariously juvenile threats are now better known than the music of some artists and as important in promoting hip-hop records as MTV, mixtapes or magazines like The Source or XXL. Just look at some of its biggest names; banal actors peddling the same old, tired Scarface storyline and building careers on exaggeration, dubious jewelry and expensive sponsorship. As with most beefs, the messes most rappers get themselves into were convoluted, based on rumors, marketing strategies, bullshittery, hype, misunderstandings, and of course testosterone. Seems the contest of outdoing other MCs with lyrical skills degenerates quickly into loudmouth egotistical boys involving vicious personal put downs by some of the biggest egos in the music business.
Dating back to the primitive days of hip-hop, beef wasn’t just something you ate, it was something you expected and had to be ready to retaliate. What began with friendly DJ rivalries on neighborhood block parties in the 1970s soon manifested into the untimely deaths of icons 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. Today hip-hop beefs, and to a greater extent the vituperative diss track, are warning signs that there is always a possibility that lyrical rivalries will develop into offstage feuds that become violent. However, in the contemporary realm, we have rappers who have almost entirely eliminated the idea of a song, routinely blurring the line between rapping and talking. The end result of this are deeply hood coded messages that are a string of survivalist mantras. None of this is more evident than in the post-Flockaveli era. Possibly the most interesting thing about the post-Flockaveli era in hip-hop which we are currently inhibiting is, with only a mere two years removed, just how the album has risen from its intrinsic and dormant state to bulldozing through radio rap, demolishing a stale playing field, all while making zero concessions. In my five star rated review for Flockaveli I noted that the album’s brute power and appeal comes primarily from its immediate impact on its intended demographic. In short, it’s an album that was exclusively dedicated to the hustlers and “real street niggas”. On Flockaveli, Waka Flocka Flame’s main objective was to permeate the underclass frustration and rage through the medium of hip-hop and he succeeded. Big time.
With Flockaveli, Waka quickly established himself as an artist who’s more focused on grand spectacle than verisimilitude and with that changed the game overnight. Rappers egos inflated, characters more exaggerated, and it left many adrift rethinking their entire approach. This climate shift couldn’t have benefited the Chicago rap scene anymore than it did, cultivating a nihilistic attitude, remorseless demeanor, and despondency through really living ‘that life’. Knowing what we know now, Flockaveli is something of a relic for Chicago’s inner city youth; deeply personal, relevant, carefully preserved, and seldomly talked about. The contents within Flockaveli are the very basis for the current existence of the Chicago rap scene; Lex Luger’s blaring beats, Waka’s grunted threats, and all the trappings of success through kinship. 16-year-old Englewood native Chief Keef and his Glory Boys Entertainment cohorts wasted no time and as the progeny of Flockaveli crafted their very own brand of loud, rough, unrelenting, lurching hip-hop. Where Waka Flocka Flame left off with a degree of respect, albeit minuscule, for his enemies, Keef is expressionless, almost quite literally dead-behind-the-eyes. All the more fitting that his debut mixtape from earlier this year was titledBack From the Dead. Though Keef is 16-years-old, he’s a menace, a chillingly antisocial bugger, completely void of even a minutiae of regard for human existence outside his gang.
Keef’s Back From the Dead was hateful (“Please don’t disrespect my niggas/ Cause we gon’ squeeze a lot of fucking triggers”), unsentimental (“This nigga looking at me like he want some/ Pistol to his face if he owe some”), and just straight up scary (“Fuck with my family, and you are finished”) to sometimes listen to. Give or take a couple of tracks consisting of Keef bragging about his expensive jeans, it’s a genuinely frightening debut into hip-hop, perhaps even trumping his antecedent. Keef’s viral come-up is endearing and rings true that of the Waka’s unforeseen spike; two artists from the ghettos of America who made names for themselves without the interference of a label, major or indie. But why stop there? Chief Keef, thanks equal parts to his humbling viral success and Kanye West’s remix of “I Don’t Like”, would inevitably sign a multi-million dollar deal to Interscope. In comes his much anticipated major label debut, Finally Rich, another hip-hop rags-to-riches story. Whereas hip-hop’s frothy obsession with the rags-to-riches drug kingpin story of Tony Montana, Keef instead opts for the villainous role of Alejandro Sosa. An amusing, unorthodox angle to play from, both with his aggressive lyrics and blame game media portrayal, Keef all-around misses the mark. Sadly.
On top of being almost unanimously vilified by the national media and old heads, Chief Keef had a whole lot more in his arsenal that he could have potentially worked with to make Finally Rich his no holds barred bombastic tell-everyone-right-the-fuck-off zeitgeist it should have been. It seemed like right after “I Don’t Like” reached the masses a trajectory of various storylines began to form over Keef and his associates; the shocking (and potentially affiliated) murder of rival rapper Lil JoJo, a leaked video showing Lil Reese brutally assaulting a woman, and Lupe Fiasco’s emotional public breakdown after stating that Keef “scares him”. Where all of this horrific news would virtually be career suicide for many artists, it would only serve to benefit Keef and company. And these highly publicized, much scrutinized incidents should have very well been the spark to Keef’s flame but rather than capitalizing off of it he not only comes away unscathed but essentially unmoved by any of it.
As far as production goes, because let’s not beat around the bush, Keef isn’t one for dexterity, are truly disappointing. Keef’s frequent collaborator and undoubtedly the muscle behind his skimpy veneer, 18-year-old Chicago producer Young Chop, is responsible for seven of the twelve total tracks. Frankly, this should be a non-issue for Finally Rich but where Chop was churning out his trademark combination of gut-shot bass hits, drilling hi-hats, and downright eerie operatic-minded beats on some of Keef’s (and GBE’s) best known songs, here he opts for borderline cheap and plain ol’ cheesy spaceman synths. Take “Hallelujah” for example, a track that on first listen isn’t anymore conspicuous than Young Chop’s aforementioned repertoire; strings directly at the forefront, domineering heavy bass, and a menacing drill to pull it all together. But in its seemingly innocuous three minutes Chop ineffectually loads the song with a persistently icy synth and random studio nick-nacks that are as distracting and displeasing to the ears as a showboating child blocking your sight by ceaselessly performing boring cartwheels in front of the television.
Not all of the production woes can fall solely on Young Chop because all things considered there are five tracks produced by an assortment of reliable trunk-knocking neoteric beatmakers; Casa Di, YGOnDaBeat, K.E. on the Track, Leekeleek, and the chart-topping, bottle-popping Mike WiLL Made It. The grab-bag of producers on Finally Rich should have been beneficial for Chief Keef and really, it couldn’t have been any easier for him. The denoted producers all have a rudimentary system in play: the heavier, the bassier, the better. Keef would agree, after all his calling card is the innate laid-back aura that has him emphasizing the last syllable of his lines. It’s a one-trick pony, but it’s potent and damn catchy to cap it off. Unfortunately, with the exception of YGOnDaBeat’s monstrous “Laughin’ to the Bank” and Chop’s twofer “Love Sosa” and “Kobe” none of the beats truly flatter Keef’s rugged behavior and the verboseness from Back From the Dead is drastically downplayed on Finally Rich. If we were to single out a particular letdown, it would without question be Mike WiLL Made It’s contribution (or lack thereof) “No Tomorrow”, an insipid electronica pop track that wouldn’t even serve as a LMFAO bonus track.
The positives of Finally Rich could be summed up by the opening track, “Love Sosa”, Chief Keef’s second single, which has surprisingly surpassed the mammoth “I Don’t Like” as the most-viewed Keef video on YouTube earlier this month, that the tandem of Keef and Chop works when the basic building blocks are intact. It’s at once hooky and immediate and disturbingly unusual, like a rap song melting in real time. Sometimes, perhaps, the most simplest ideas are the most powerful. And although Keef hasn’t noticeably matured greatly from Back From the Dead to now, he’s grown quite conscious of his impact, particularly on his die-hard fans (there are tracks with audio samples from fan-made YouTube videos) and devotes an oeuvre to them for their endless love and support. There are some tender, lighthearted moments; Keef showing signs of briefly being contemplative, sweet, and even acknowledging his eschatology. Lyrics that mention his daughter, family, happy to be employed, and being capable of supporting them now. Even if these warm moments on Finally Rich are a brief glint, they are indeed surprisingly very touching. But I’m not entirely too sure if that is the side of Keef we want to see.
And with that we arrive at the biggest and glaring problem with Finally Rich: Chief Keef’s short career being the backdrop for something much larger and harrowing, far beyond his own reach. It’s become virtually impossible to mention Keef’s name and squad without simultaneously documenting the city of Chicago in 2012. Keef is a national figure now, but you still can’t detach him from his home city, one with a murder rate so astronomical (currently at 514 bodies) that Keef (and other rappers) casually refer to as ‘Chiraq.’ Keef was seen to be the visible reflection to the obscene violence in Chicago and it’s pretty obvious that Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine would ultimately conduct a thorough major label reappropriation of Keef’s notorious image, having him appeal to cross cultures, not just the 1% in the hood. After all, how would they possibly sell records? If Chicago police were worried about Chief Keef’s influence over the inner city urban youth, they should sleep relatively easy after hearing Finally Rich. Nothing to fear here.