Chronicles: Chief Keef – Finally Rich

Chief Keef is seventeen years old, but that hasn’t stopped him calling his first album “Finally Rich”, or from sounding and acting like a fully grown man. By now everyone who cares knows the RSS feed version of Keef’s sudden rise to rap celebrity: a viral WorldStar video of crazy pre-teen celebrating Keef’s release from jail; a perfect song & video whilst under house arrest in “I Don’t Like”; a terrible Kanye remix; a million dollar Interscope deal; the necessary mixtape and short pause; now this album.

As is natural when an artist is subjected to viscous accelerated hype, Keef has nearly as many detractors as he does fans. Many commentators protest his allegedly unfiltered celebration of Chicago’s wholly fucked up culture of gang violence. Closer objections centre around his apparently limited artistic range and on doubts about his ability to successfully craft an album. “Finally Rich” however, is an album where Keef shows himself as capable of far more than the simple affectless repetition he gets accused of; it’s a sharply focused record with several outstanding tracks and a few successful experiments.

When writing about someone who has arrived fully formed as if from nowhere, it is almost impossible not to try and explain their artistic parentage. Keef raps with a brutal economy of language, he avoids superfluous words and, when seen on a screen, his best can lines appear boring and amateur. But this isn’t post-lyrical hip hop – that unhelpful concept that makes ‘verbosity’ a synonym for ‘lyrics’ – but it is rap with a primary focus on something more than just words, a hip hop which succeeds almost solely because of the self-constructed magnetism of the rapper.

Initially then, because of Keef’s concise, anti-flair writing style, it seems easy to make a parallel between him and Waka Flocka Flame. And to a large extent this works; they do both excel at party hype pop music with straight-to-memory no-nonsense lyrics. However, Keef has a better command of melody than Waka and is less reliant on the size and sheer impact of his voice to make a song land; his hooks are nearer to song or speech than shouts. Waka’s verses can be essential because of their sustained excitement and jubilant charisma; but I can’t think of a single Keef verse that hits purely as hard as “Foreign Shit”. Keef is a chorus artist, his repeated hooks surpass verses in their importance and impact.

Stream: Chief Keef – Love Sosa (Interscope Records)

Indeed repetition, so essential and so celebrated in many other genres, gets unfairly vilified and configured as ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ in rap, by many rockist writers, who act as if ‘lyrical intelligence’ is the only innovative and artistic thing a rapper can do. Keef’s album is evidence that even rap as blunt and as apparently compressed as his can be potently original and inventive. “No Tomorrow”, a Mike Will track with (un)coincidentally the best beat on the album, pitches spacious airy arpeggios against Keef’s raps and close adlibs; there’s a wonderful contrast between Mike Will’s beautiful subtle detail and Keef’s claustrophobic auto-drugged slur. “Citgo” is the closest thing to tender on the album, and maybe the clearest evidence of Keef’s pop genius. Its vocoder-contorted chorus is “Finally Rich”‘s most dazzlingly catchy moment, despite being nearly unintelligible and actually quite sinister: ‘We let off shots and you bound to get hit tho’.

The more you listen to “Finally Rich”, the more Gucci Mane’s huge influence looms. It’s not really in the lyrics; Keef will probably never approach Gucci’s virtuoso writing. But there’s another equally important component to Keef’s art that he shares with Gucci: the adlibs. Throughout the album, Keef peppers the background of his verses with phrases, words and noises in the most effective and affecting way since Gucci. They’re a constant presence done so perfectly that they slide into the construction of the track without standing out or seeming weird, awkward or overdone. They become potent as mini-hooks define Keef as strongly as his choruses. Yaaaaaw; Bang Bang; Sosa Baby; Beep Beep; Daaamn and even Gucci’s own Skrrr: get ready to shout them.

It was obvious, even from its initial distorted YouTube singalong preview, that “Hate Being Sober” was going to be incredible. It’s an absolute smash and one of the album’s indisputable peaks, but its brilliance has irationalised listeners. It seems natural that a child is able to write a song that makes an unending inebriation sound so fucking appealing, but it really isn’t. It’s also ridiculous that two grown men can’t out-sinister or sound more anti-sober than Keef: adults step your drug game up. Keef really needs all the verses on “Hate Being Sober”; it’s the track where his rapping is at its most musical, a mini-chorus in its memorability. Wiz Khalifa just sounds so weird and ill placed here; his affable stoner shtick and sharp vocal clarity rubs awful against this triumph of unreality. This song still gets crazy replays though, even with Wiz: it’s that amazing. 50 Cent could be dropped too; his verse is too millionaire-business-man-VIP-lounge to fully fit with Keef. Still, it’s his hottest thing in forever, and he sounds confident and funny and charismatic, like the 50 we so sorely miss.

Stream: Chief Keef – Hallelujah (Interscope Records)

It’s not a flawless album however: “Laughin’ to the Bank” stands unchallenged as the worst song on “Finally Rich.” Sounding like some horrible near future, it arrives as if to demonstrate the sinking limit of the ‘drill’ sound. A horrible empty deadness; frightening synths; Keef’s taught, meaningless laugh that isn’t a laugh but a learned noise; a background filled with frightened screams and deranged, manic shrieking; adlibs that are barely noises; it’s repetitive in an overwhelming and dizzying way.*

Really though, “Finally Rich” is an extremely good album, especially when judged as one released on a major label in 2012. “Laughin’ to the Bank” (along with maybe “Ballin”) is pretty much the only true misstep. Above all, what is most impressive and pleasing about this album is the extent to which it functions as wholly Keef’s; it sounds like a mixtape, and I mean that in the very best way. It is an album without artistic compromise and without negative repetition. It is an album which demonstrates his surprising durability and considerable pop talent whilst at the same time remaining raw and assertive. It is an album that is sometimes scary but rarely boring.

And despite Keef’s emphasis on street life and whatever other hard and questionable rhetoric he sells, he is still also the product of industry hip hop: a person raised on rap. As such he naturally understands the politics and business of a major label release, so that when Rick Ross appears to add a verse to “3Hunna” it’s not a surprise or even a real compromise. That’s something we should hold onto when thinking about Keef, his message is similar and familiar because we’ve heard it before, and so has he: from thousands of other money motivated gang orientated rap tracks. He isn’t some depressingly self destructive, dead-to-the-world-teen; he’s a talented guy making new music spun from what he’s heard.

*Since writing this, it has become one of our favourite tracks on “Finally Rich”. It’s still scary though.

Chief Keef’s Finally Rich is out now on Interscope Records.

Ian Maxwell

1 thought on “Chronicles: Chief Keef – Finally Rich”

  1. a couple things:

    a)his repeated hooks don’t really top the verses on the album…he’s never done well with hooks and often copies the same 4-note melodies (as seen on his past mixtapes) but now he’s actually showing some range within the bars that at least shows he’s trying; regardless of how much he tries to make himself sound like he’s not trying.
    b)50 cent’s verse on ‘hate being sober’ is legit and could not be done away with on the song. wiz, yes he can go, but 50’s verse not only shows he’s still got the chops to rap but also personifies the lineage from 50 to keef…all in one song. keef was likely raised on 50’s ‘get rich or die trying’ so its fitting that his debut album is not only titled ‘finally rich’ but is also released on the same label as the early-00s icon.
    c)’ballin’ is so underrated and (like everyone else) while i agree about ‘laughin to the bank’ i encourage either a stronger appreciation of autotune or more listens to the track. when ‘ballin’ came out over the summer i kept it on repeat and couldn’t get enough of it, so you can imagine my surprise to see it on the album. also, no ‘kay kay’ love? that’s the stand out track to me…most seem quick to label hate being sober or no tomorrow (mainly because of mike will) the best song on the LP but ‘kay kay’ gets better and better each time i give it a listen.

    k, that’s all.
    you make good points on gucci and waka too.

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