For many, the initial image of Chief Keef was jarring. It was the video for his 2012 breakout hit “I Don’t Like”: the shirtless 16-year-old rapper exhaling weed smoke, wildly shaking his ’locs, and clutching an automatic gun with a huge clip stuffed into gravity-defeated denims, while friends jumped around and aimed firearms of their own.
The song, which candidly details Keef’s greatest displeasures, went viral after fellow Chicagoan Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music family hijacked the Young Chop-produced instrumental and released a remix. After a brief bidding war, Keef quickly inked with Interscope for three solo albums and his own Glory Boyz Entertainment imprint, reportedly worth a combined $6 million. He was set.
Yet two years and one polarizing album later, Keef has been dumped by his label and sent (literally) packing. Bang-bang!
Anyone paying attention to the career of young Keith Cozart, now 19, could’ve seen this coming. His stint on Interscope (also home to LMFAO and Fergie) was punctuated by a house arrest; stints in rehab, jail and juvenile detention (he infamously violated his probation in June 2012 by interviewing with Pitchfork at a shooting range); and a rumored involvement in the murder of rival rapper Lil JoJo, whose death he mocked on Twitter.
Oh, and Keef released some music, too.
His debut studio album, Finally Rich, was called both “one of the best major-label debuts in recent memory” by Spin and “sonically bankrupt” by RapRadar.com, the latter dubbing it 2012’s worst album. By taking Waka Flocka Flame’s uninhibited aggression and lacing it with gunpowder, Keef became the face of not only Chicago’s drill subgenre, but also the alarming homicide statistics it reflects. He’s an easy bullseye for hip-hop detractors and purists, while remaining a curiosity for cultural tourists. It’s complicated.
Still, Chief Keef’s pink slip arrives during a year when rap is regaining a bit of the grit that for the past few years has been greatly drowned out within Drake’s tear ducts. One of 2014’s most captivating hip-hop rookies, Brooklyn hellion Bobby Shmurda, instantly drew comparisons to Keef via prominent pantomiming of guns large and small in the gritty video for the bloodthirsty “Hot Nigga.” Yet Shmurda, with his Internet-sweeping Shmoney Dance, is exponentially more charismatic than his Midwest counterpart.
Meanwhile, the visual for Detroit newbie Dej Loaf’s lethal lullaby “Try Me” casually displays a handgun and bullets laid out on the kitchen counter, right next to the Rice Krispies. (Snap, crackle, pop suddenly isn’t so appetizing.) YG’s criminally minded coming-of-age album My Krazy Life is among the year’s most praised rap projects, and Atlanta’s Young Thug is music’s new favorite incoherent star. While Chief Keef’s woozy bluster is unapologetically raw, it’s far from the finest grade. (Lil’ Bibby’s lyrical Chicago street tales on Free Crack 2 are A1.)
Could Interscope’s decision signal a rap world also leaving Chief Keef behind? Or, to a greater extent, is hip-hop refocusing its spotlight away from Chicago’s fetishized, seriously grave crime scene to the grimy elsewheres of America?
Maybe Keef, who relocated to Los Angeles this year, was just a major Interscope headache.
If he’s still got your ears, Chief Keef could maintain or even excel sans major label deal. It’s 2014, and majors have long been on the verge of being optional. (Just ask Chance the Rapper, an indie-by-choice Windy City star on the opposite end of the aggression spectrum.) “One-hundred percent of everything goes to me now,” Keef tweeted after confirming his Interscope split. Really, he’s been maneuvering like an unsigned artist since his debut first dropped, releasing free mixtapes and songs that are increasingly nonsensical and lackadaisical, but mostly forgettable. He’s now truly free to record without making big label compromises (though to be fair, Finally Rich seems relatively non-tampered).
Keef has another Kanye West collaboration titled “Nobody” in the stash to follow up his gurgling on Yeezus’s “Can’t Hold My Liquor.” Meanwhile, Keef says he’s putting out both Back From the Dead 2 and Bang, Pt. 3 mixtapes on Halloween and Christmas, respectively. “Ain’t sh*t gone stop Jus gets better and bigger!” he insists via Twitter. Whether he once again shoots up the charts or just shoots, one thing for certain is that Chief Keef is not going out without a bang or two.
John Kennedy is a writer, editor and tortured Knicks fan who represents Queens, but stays out in Brooklyn. He’s written for Vibe, Billboard and XXL. Tweet him at @youngJFK. (Nas slander will get you blocked.)