We wanted to share this piece with you in light of the upcoming release of Chief Keef’s Finally Rich and the soul-shattering events of the 14th. We need to remember that music is more than namedropping and new genres.
Hip hop has a new prince, and he is a 17 year-old felon with a muti-million dollar deal with Interscope Records. Keith Cozart, better known as Chief Keef has been lauded by some as a savior of rap music and reviled by others as an irresponsible kid who promotes violence amongst his peers. In a matter of a year, his fan base expanded from an amorphous network of Chicago high school-ers on their cell phones to the massive audience brought about by a major label PR budget. Not one but two of his music videos have accumulated over 20,000,000 views on Youtube, and almost every major critical publication has come out either in support of, or at least respectably acknowledged, his work. On the other hand, the Chicago District Attorney’s office is doing its best to put Cozart in jail, and many see him as nothing more than an irresponsible teenager, or worse. However, trying to neatly pigeonhole Chief Keef as either a heroic postmodern poet or a delinquent is the wrong way to approach the study of this fascinating, walking talking piece of media. Chief Keef is both of these things.
Fellow Chicago rapper Rhymefest, in a blog post that shines an incredible amount of light on the nature of Chief Keef’s position, called the young rapper a “bomb”, an incredibly powerful force that is unleashed upon whoever it is dropped upon. The deployment of this “weapon” is integral to how rap fans and the general public alike will perceive Keef, but more importantly, it will determine how Cozart’s career life will proceed. The result depends on whether Keef is being positioned as a cash cow, reinforcing dangerous stereotypes and leading young people into destructive behavior or whether he will emerge as a voice that expresses the pain of his life and those of his peers in a way that is visceral enough to move people to change.
Hit the jump to read on…
Not much is known about Keith Cozart before he became Chief Keef. He is from the South Side of Chicago, vaguely associated with the Gangster Disciples, and before his meteoric rise to fame, he was living at his grandmother’s house on house arrest for allegedly pointing a gun at a Chicago Police officer. His music runs directly counter to the prevailing subject matter and tone of mainstream rap music, which has become more of a celebration of success and fame than a story of the come up. On the other hand, Chief Keef’s music holds no pretentions, he doesn’t exaggerate, and that is what makes it so moving. His music represents an easy-to-empathize-with struggle and pain absent in Drake’s tender musings on fame, Kanye West’s obsession with the ego, Rick Ross’s overblown drug-trade narratives, or Lil’ Wayne’s demented hedonism (arguably the four most influential players in contemporary mainstream rap). His work is comparable to the stark verses of Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame. Waka Flocka (who, unlike Chief Keef, is soft spoken and articulate in interviews) professes to write raps in which the words are merely vehicles for a particular emotion that a beat brings out in him. Waka Flocka’s anthemic hook “I go hard in the motherfucking paint nigga/Leave you stinkin nigga, what the fuck you thinking nigga” looks just as awkward when transcribed in the midst of an academic essay as Chief Keef’s “A fucked nigga, that’s that shit I don’t like/A snitch nigga, that’s that shit I don’t like/A bitch nigga, that’s that shit I don’t like/A sneak disser, that’s that shit I don’t like”. However, millions upon millions of Americans fell in love with these two manifestations of an aggression that generally simmers quietly in the American consciousness. You might not understand Chief Keef and Waka Flocka Flame, but you feel them.
Upon closer examination, the two rappers differ starkly, and their differences illustrate two vital characteristics of Chief Keef. First, Waka Flocka’s persona is a complete acting job while Chief Keef espouses an autobiographical realness. Flocka has tangible experience with the street life, but that was never his only option. He was a successful student; he hung out with the band nerds as well as the gangsters. As Flocka’s character has moved into the mainstream consciousness, this quality has been publicized and celebrated amongst the critical press and some of his fan-base. The noted divorce between the reality of Waka Flocka as a person and his persona is an interesting foil to the fact that Keith Cozart and Chief Keef are one in the same person; he talks it, and he lives it.
The differences between Chicago and Atlanta as regional rap scenes must also be delineated in order to properly contextualize Chief Keef’s work and his rise to fame. Atlanta is one of the three main epicenters of hip-hop in the country. Atlanta is to southern hip-hop what New York and LA are to east and west coast hip-hop respectively. As such, if an artist from Atlanta starts getting play one of the big Atlanta hip-hop stations (or strip clubs), that artist starts getting plays all across the south, as a large portion of hip-hop’s fan base looks toward Atlanta for the next big thing. This has a political economic effect of homogenizing the output of rappers operating in that scene, as they tend to pursue the same basic aesthetic that is known to sell. There are geographical/chronological exceptions to this homogeneity, Memphis in the late 1990’s and Baton Rouge in the mid-2000’s for example, but Atlanta is, and always has, been the focal point of the south.
Chicago, while having a huge concentration of hip-hop fans, has a much different regional scene than Atlanta. It is generally accepted that, for much of the past two decades, Chicago has not had a strong presence in the rap industry. There have been tremendously successful Chicago rappers, Common, Twista, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West to name a few, but they have all abandoned their city in order to make it big in the industry. West has defined a generation of hip-hop, but his breakout production effort came on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint, which is viewed as a definitive piece of east coast hip hop, even though the soul revivalism of Kanye’s beats owes just as much to Chicago’s pioneer house producers as the harsh boom-bap of the RZA or the elaborate cuts of DJ Premiere. As such, this new “Chicago sound” became the east coast sound, and Chicago rappers didn’t have the same ability to reach a wide fan-base enjoyed by artists operating in LA, New York, or Atlanta. Midwestern radio stations didn’t look to Chicago the same way southern stations used Atlanta as a signal of new profitable trends and artists. However, as with all of our media systems, the low cost production and dissemination of the digital age is changing the way Chicago rap functions.
The most powerful player in Chicago’s rap scene is actually a videographer. Duane Gaines was born on the south side of the city and kept moving around the city as the housing projects he would occupy with his mother were razed. Through this tumultuous upbringing, the one constant were visits to a friend’s house where a laptop provided the means to make beats, record raps, and edit videos. After Gaines lost hearing in one ear, he switched his focus from music to videography, and soon his Youtube channel “DGainz1234” became the primary source for the music of up and coming Chicago rappers. Rather than let rappers approach him, Gaines began seeking out talent in Chicago. Stepping back, the parallels between the function of a record label and the role that DGainz plays are striking; both perform A&R, produce a product, and publicize and disseminate it. It just so happens that digital video editing and Youtube allow him to perform these functions as an autonomous agent. The power of DGaines1234 as a record label is more than theoretical; the video for Chief Keef’s Interscope-bankrolled single “Love Sosa” has 10 times as many views on the DGainz channel as it does on Chief Keef’s official Vevo. The video has about 2 million views on the official channel.
On March 11, 2012, the music video for “I Don’t Like” was uploaded to DGainz1234. The video is set in one location, the living room of Chief Keef’s grandmother’s house, which is the only possible location for filming, considering that Cozart was on house arrest at the time of the filming. The content of the video forms a perfect complement with the song, which is a grunted, raw dissertation on gang life in Chicago. The messages in the song are clear: If I don’t know you, I don’t like you. If I know you, I might just rob you on sight. If you are in any way my enemy, I will shoot you. Hopes and dreams don’t make a single appearance in the song, nor do indications that Chief Keef is anybody other than the figure he personifies. The video reinforces these sentiments perfectly. Every shot is Keef or his crew. There are no women. There are no white people. It is clear that the young men in the “I Don’t Like” video rely on each other; Keef falls to the ground in an angry fervor, but his friends immediately lift him back to his feet. At the risk of drawing too many inferences into his life, these are probably the only people that have really supported Keith Cozart.
However, meaning cannot be divorced from context, and it is unacceptable to ascribe my erudite, overwrought interpretation of this music video to every viewer. One consistent attribute of the rapper is that of the hero, the one who is making it out of an undesirable situation. Chief Keef is a hero to kids on the south side, and he undoubtedly is moving people to express themselves and hopefully lead them towards the self-awareness inherent in that pursuit. However, it is impossible to ignore the other facets of his personality that he promotes through his music. Take the following pair of couplets from “I Don’t Like”: I done got indicted selling all white/but I won’t never snitch none in my life/I keep this shit 3hunna bitch, I’m going right/Where my niggas when it’s time to start taking lives. This basically translates to Cozart saying that his life path has involved not only drug dealing but also a fervent conviction not to give up that life once the police apprehend him. Further, it is this dedication that keeps him “going right”, and his crew will be there to help and protect him every time things inevitably turn violent. This subject matter is representative of the dominant majority of Cozart’s lyrics.
It is hard to find a standard by which Chief Keef is a good role model. He is making no effort to educate himself, he is dodging the consequences of committing serious crimes, and he doesn’t care. Maybe America needs to hear this music to know that our society incubates people like Chief Keef, but the city of Chicago (dubbed “Chiraq” by some) does not. To date, there have been 488 homicides in Chicago, and people much like Chief Keef have perpetrated the vast majority of them. The ad-lib has become a defining signature of a rapper, and before the beat drops, he can be heard intoning his characteristic “bang-bang”, and these words are echoed all over the South Side of Chicago in both the words and actions of his peers.
Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco sits directly on the other side of the hip-hop spectrum from Chief Keef. Erudite, articulate, and thoughtful, he makes music that not only acknowledges and describes the suffering of urban life, but also explores its roots and carries the intentions of someone who wants things to change. He has also been one of the few vocal critics of Chief Keef, who has received enthusiastic cosigns from almost all sectors of the rap industry. In Fiasco’s own words, “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but the culture that he represents. The murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing… The incubator’s working overtime. It’s sending these kids to slaughter.” Do Fiasco’s words really matter though? The fact of the matter is that Kief is racking up popular singles and making millions while Fiasco, who’s popularity has been in steady decline since the release of 2007’s The Cool, resides in major label purgatory. As admirable as his intentions are, Fiasco words are as unrelatable to Chicago’s youth as an elder statesman like KRS-One or even the “militant” grumblings of Dead Prez.
Stream: Chief Keef – “I Don’t Like” (Feat. Lil Reese)
Finally Rich, Chief Keef’s debut full-length album, will be released by Interscope on December 18, 2012. As our country reels from one of the most tragic, shocking instances of gun violence in recent memory, Interscope is going to try to sell as many copies of Finally Rich as possible. An advance review from Pitchfork reports that, surprisingly, the new album sounds like a continuation of the material preceding it. Thus, the Chief Keef that will be marketed to the masses as the same character as the one behind “I Don’t Like”. Interscope gave Young Chop and Chief Keef a state of the art studio in which to work, and the quality of the engineering is incomparable to the earlier mixtapes. However, if Pitchfork is to be trusted, the label did not engineer Chief Keef’s persona in the same way. Similar to how they temper Sosa’s recorded voice with the same type of vocal treatment given to a blockbuster pop artist but don’t dictate his “lyricism”, they make some effort to polish Keef’s charismatic tendencies (his childish energy and emotionally charged delivery) without changing the persona that he has developed.
Stream: Chief Keef – “Love Sosa”
This strategy is at once savvy and unexpected. Although it is far from the status quo amongst major labels, Interscope realized that they didn’t need to turn Chief Keef into sickly sweet urban flavored syrup in order to sell records. Some clever A&R probably realized that the label had already bought out the tallest lightning pole around, and trying to soften Chief Keef’s image would only lessen his magnetism. The differences between the video for “Love Sosa” and the one for “I Don’t Like” are small, but shine some valuable light onto Interscope’s positioning of Chief Keef. The setting (a living room) is similar, but slightly more plush, because after all, Keef is finally rich. As Young Chop’s synths swirl about moodily, we catch a glimpse of the young, attractive star staring into the mirror as any teenager might, but with an uncharacteristic introversion that brings out the pain in Sosa’s nihilism. However, the hook revolves around the punch line “hit him wit the cobra/now that boy slumped over”; the focus on the violent realities of life (or an exaggeration of them) remains. The collection of street platitudes that make up Chief Keef’s lyrics are delivered in the same slow, slurred deadpan as before, with inflections reduced to pained growls. Miraculously, Chief Keef did not “sell out”.
The next single from Finally Rich, “Hate Being Sober”, provides further insight into the transparent commercialization of Chief Keef. Although the name of the song wouldn’t indicate it, the song also represents some of the best things about Chief Keef. The song’s two guest verses, from mixtape phenom turned pop-rap abomination Wiz Khalifa and the once washed up, but now catching a second wind 50 Cent, are some of the most expensive verses Interscope could find. And Sosa blows them out of the water. Keef gets to sing the hook, and in doing so puts an indelible stamp on the song and does a remarkable job of saving the track from the quagmire of vapid party anthems.
Damn I hate being sober, I’m a smoker
Fredo a drinker, Tadoe off molly water
We can’t spell sober
Ballout roll up, when we roll up bitches be on us
So the lot smoking and I’m drinking
It takes over for no reason
Cause we can’t spell sober
Ya know us, we smoke strong bruh
Watch me roll up
Cause I can’t spell sober
Whether he meant to or not (and I am in no position to speculate), by repeating 5 loaded words, Chief Keef shifts the blame for his delinquency upon the institutions that actually suppress him and his friends. Everybody in the crew has their own coping mechanism, and they put them together to try to forge some sort of community and do something that makes them “happy”, or at least ball out. His verse on the track seamlessly continues this same stark realism with a no-holds-barred take on how they party. He finishes by repeating the couplet “Call up D-Money, now we throw money/All these bitches off the shit walk around like some zombies”. Although it is primitive in syntax, Sosa’s verse shines bright against the two guest verses, which traffic in the trite hyperbole that dominates the discussion of substance use in rap music today. There is no contrived posturing in the “I Don’t Like” video and that sense of acting stays commendably absent in Keef’s work on “Hate Being Sober”.
Stream: Chief Keef – “Hate Bein’ Sober”
I love Chief Keef, and I kind of hate myself for it. Wracked with privileged white guilt, I bang his songs all the way turned up, imitate his deranged dancing, and it makes me feel something. I think that listening to Chief Keef rap does wonders for my ability to empathize with my fellow human beings, but that’s just me. I don’t really know how a kid who went to elementary school with Keith Cozart would perceive his music, but I have a feeling that it wouldn’t involve reading his demeanor and lyrical content as a critique of the lifestyle that Sosa leads (a lifestyle that is leading a depressing number of his peers to the grave). Rather, this hypothetical kid probably sees that you can make it as long as you stay as hardened and ruthless as Chief Keef. Sosa sure isn’t teaching this young man empathy and the want to learn, or this young woman that there is more to life than being someone’s bitch, and this makes me worry that nobody will fill this role.
I hope to god that Keith Cozart grows up as prodigiously as he has risen to fame. He has reached prominence on the back of an aesthetic that is utterly his own. He has an unprecedented power to contextualize himself, and if Sosa had a mind to curb violence in the streets of his hometown, he has the unbridled charisma to do so. If Interscope continues its seemingly hands off A&R policy, then the meanings people get from Chicago’s gangsta prince are dictated by his artistic vision and the music press.
Pitchfork, the pre-eminent source for information on independent music and highbrow critiques of popular music is doing exactly what the music press should not be doing with regards to Chief Keef. They are glorifying his realness without connecting that realness to anything outside of the rap industry. One of the few interviews that the rapper granted was with Pitchfork, and they chose to stage it at a firing range. In a microcosm of the general coverage of Chief Keef, we see him harmlessly exercising his image as a violent gang member. The director of the interview must’ve been salivating over the gun range’s power to show off the realness that makes Chief Keef better than other rappers but couldn’t see out of the ivory tower enough to realize that they were documenting a young man breaking his probation and providing evidence that could toss Cozart into prison.
What makes me truly livid is the fact that, in an otherwise respectable review of Finally Rich, Pitchfork did not once contextualize Keef’s persona with the recent spike in gun violence. The review came out the day of the Newport shootings. As the rest of America finally started discussing gun violence, the review that is supposed to represent the highest critique of this music mentions briefly, “his youth, his rapid rise, and his association with Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence made him 2012’s flashpoint for discussions about what was wrong with hip-hop.” I believe that not basing one’s analysis of Chief Keef on his position in our society is woefully inadequate coverage of the music being made, and a terrible waste of an opportunity to drop the Sosa bomb on the institutions that suppress him.
I think that Keith Cozart is a damn good rapper, an artist. He has a lens and a worldview and he sticks ferociously to that; in this regard I respect and admire Chief Keef. However, Sosa is a terrible member of society. A generation of Chief Keefs would ruin America, and to some extent that is what our system is creating. The press is failing to critique what this music represents because jumping on the Chief Keef bandwagon is lucrative and justified by the fact that, like it or not, he is a breath of fresh air in the rap industry. However, I call upon the words of my good friend and collaborator, a rapper born in Chicago who calls himself Milo. I make him beats and he raps on them, and the music we make is about as far from Chief Keef as you can get. From a statement made on his Facebook page:
“i think what bums me out about most of the music i hear is how unabashedly vicious, cruel it is. which is an understandable response to a less-than-ideal existence but it seems like we’re at a point where no longer is excess, disparity or vice interesting. it will become (has become) the “cool” move to suddenly grasp out for responsibility, to be kind and funny, to try to make sense of a bleak, (probably) meaningless existence in a way that affirms duty/virtue.”
The sense of duty and virtue has been hammered out of the lives of millions of Americans because a seemingly hopeless existence does not allow for such things. The nihilism of Sosa is good for those who do not share it because, unfortunately, the rapper is venting an honest philosophy in a powerful way, and we need to know that our society is pushing certain members to feel and think in this manner. The crucial next step is whether Keith Cozart’s music ends up fighting against this nihilism or promoting it. Ultimately this is up to him, but we, as the writers and thinkers of America, have a responsibility to treat his music and his situation with the utmost respect, and that means criticizing the aspects of it that are making us worse off as a human race.