Chief Keef did something in 2012 that plenty of people didn’t expect: He persevered. Now he’s done something even more unlikely: He’s made one of the best rap albums of the year, and one of the best major-label debuts in recent memory. What’s more, Finally Rich, the 18-year-old Chicago rapper’s first proper album for Interscope, is almost entirely free of the ass-covering, meddling, and Pepsi-ready timidity that has long been the cynical hallmark of mainstream rap music. That may sound like a minor point, but it speaks to nothing less than the unalienable artistic skill that so many people are invested in making you believe he doesn’t possess.
The idea that Chief Keef is somehow undeserving of his success can be traced back to a number of factors, but musically speaking, it’s obvious why there’s been such a blowback. As a rapper, he’s a straight descendant of Waka Flocka Flame: His lyrics are direct and purposefully bereft of showmanship. This gets read as “dumbed-down” (or as just straight dumb), but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire function of Keef’s words. What he does instead is take the shortest — and, crucially, the catchiest — route to connecting with his audience. He writes for, and thrives within, a generation that uses ALL-CAPS phrases as emblems on social-media sites, but that’s not to say that he shuts out anyone who can legally buy a drink. He is the id on display, with the same “fuck everything and everyone” attitude that has powered the existence of entire genres throughout history.
It is true, though, that Keef represents a scary development for not just rap music, but inner-city youth as a whole. He has proven to be shockingly nonchalant about violence and death and murder — this year’s Back from the Dead mixtape is full of stoic, conversational threats, and stoked a backlash that reached a fever pitch over the summer when he taunted a dead rival on Twitter. But maybe the most interesting thing about Finally Rich is that the most problematic aspects of Keef’s persona have been shed like an exoskeleton. There is nothing here that approaches the grim bleakness of Dead’s core tracks, full of muttered oaths like “Fuck with my family and you are finished.”
Instead, Finally Rich comes exactly as its title advertises. Keef will always be a kid from the worst Chicago projects, and all the negative things that fact entails will still manifest in ways that rub people the wrong way. But he has been mostly insulated since rising to fame. He lives in Los Angeles now and enjoys the spoils of white-hot rap stardom: trips around the country to buy clothes and ride in Lambos and party with famous people. Critics and listeners who inherently despise Keef still want to see him as the incarnation of everything that’s wrong with both rap music and America, but this is simply a modern party-rap record, one that deserves to slide in comfortably next to minor landmarks like Waka’s Flockaveli and Future’s Pluto.
Keef’s history shouldn’t be wiped away, but it’s also clouded the discussion of a purely singular, precocious pop-rap album. He was barely a teenager when Lil Wayne first slurred his way to the top of the Billboard charts with “Lollipop,” and even younger when Young Jeezy built a monument out of ad-libs, and Finally Rich reflects a rap world where avant-garde vocal experimentation and straight catchphrasery are nothing but the norm. Keef is often tarred as regressive and reductive, but at his best he’s as progressively experimental as you could ask for.
“Love Sosa,” the album’s lead-off track and Keef’s ode to himself, is a head-trip of layered vocal tics, the rapper sloshing over top as a chorus of Keefs quietly mumble and whisper and “HANH?” at each other way down in the mix. “Hate Bein’ Sober,” the upcoming mega-single, applies the tinfoil crunch of Wayne’s vocals on his classic “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” to the bouncy joyride of “In Da Club,” drumming up a fog of voices that precisely evokes what it feels like to teeter on the edge of blacking out. When the actual 50 Cent slides through for what is admittedly one of his best verses in an eon, he sounds like a retired sprinter trying to race Usain Bolt — and that’s before he rhymes “hot tamale” with “pop a molly.”
“Hate Bein’ Sober” slides into “Kay Kay,” a lithe, slippery ballad as stoned and tripped-out as any of the Wayne mixtape tracks that people fell all over themselves to praise years ago. The bonus track, “Citgo,” is even more stunning, a glistening dewdrop with Keef’s gnarled, chomping delivery suggesting that the purest form of song is merely a melody drifting through your headspace. “Ballin,” stuck into the album’s midsection, is his take on Atlanta’s ringtone R&B, where a production’s lo-fi cheapness provides a springboard for everyman flossing. Then there’s “Laughin’ to the Bank,” a track shot through with Keef’s exaggerated, open-throated chortle. It is the album’s most divisive track and certainly its snottiest, but it’s both a barrel of fun and the natural byproduct of a kid following his mind wherever it takes him.
The rest of Finally Rich is fleshed out with post-Lex Luger rattling, though even on something as blunt as “Understand Me,” Keef’s ad-libs become yet another instrument to keep your head spinning. To plenty of people, Keef paying homage to Gucci Mane by literally blowing air and yelling “Skrrt!” on his tracks is sacrilegious nonsense, but in the younger rapper’s hands, they’re just bite-sized pieces of pop — choruses for the ADD generation. Keef’s two breakout singles — “I Don’t Like” and “3hunna” — are both included, and though both still bang, they mostly illustrate how his music has mutated in just the last year.
It remains to be seen if Finally Rich will be the start of a fruitful rap career, or if Keef will flame out like so many before him. But he’s proven he can assimilate into the world of mainstream rap while still retaining his singularity. He may forever be known as the kid whose videos depicted children waving handguns, but you wouldn’t know it from his Interscope bow: He’s no longer asking for that to be his calling card. Instead, as the torrent of controversy continues to swirl around him, Keef has written an album positioning him as one of rap’s most rewarding pop stars. How’s that for an upset?