Update: a must-read from Miles Raymer: "This isn't rap beef. This is gang beef in a rap setting."
As the new year broke, Keith Cozart was a 16-year-old from the South Side with a 31-year-old mother, a pregnant girlfriend, and a rap sheet—he was on house arrest at his grandmother's after being arrested for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer. He also had an MC name, Chief Keef, and a following in Chicago's high schools and online. Seven months later, he's been remixed by Kanye West and signed a lucrative deal with Interscope. Last night the now-17-year-old was back in local news again, this time after making light of the murder of an 18-year-old MC he'd been feuding with, though he claims his Twitter feed was hacked.
The mechanism by which Chief Keef became a star was simple: a viral video. But not of him or his music, as local writer David Drake recounted in a lengthy profile of Keef for Gawker. It was a video that went viral on WorldStarHipHop.com, of a kid flipping out because Keef had been released from his arrest. Many of the site's knowledgable readers had no idea who Keef was or why a tween would react to the news like some screaming Usher fan. The video was posted on January 2nd; Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive, who follows the local scene as closely as anyone in the business, told his audience that Keef was so underground they shouldn't be surprised if they'd never heard of him. As Drake explains, Keef had a huge CPS fan base, and the WSHH exposure simply pushed him into the greater consciousness:
Keef may have developed a loyal audience with the internet, but it was built upon existing relationships. Locally, his popularity relied on a different engine, and it's one that could prove key for establishing a real, renewable local music scene. Keef's engine wasn't just YouTube; it was the Chicago Public Schools—YouTube has just made this world visible to the outside for the first time…. Keef, though, has what essentially amounts to the modern industry's ideal formula: a self-produced internet frenzy paired with a committed, local fan base.
That's the structural explanation: Keef proved himself on the CPS circuit, and was ready for stardom when his local fame was inadvertently leaked on a popular website. Everything that came after—the remixes, the collaborations, the record deal—was built on an invisible but firm foundation.
But it still doesn't explain Chief Keef's popularity, which even worries fellow MCs. Lupe Fiasco told a Baltimore station that Keef "scares" him:
Not him, specifically, but the culture he represents specifically in Chicago…. It's just so visceral when I seen him, he looks just like Chicago, like my nephew. He could be any kid on the street, and to hear the things he raps about, comparing it to reading the newspaper and there were 22 shootings this weekend… it scares me… I understand where he's coming from, I understand his struggle, and I'm not at him, I'm at where he came from, and places like that still exist, and they incubate that mentality.
Rhymefest chillingly described Chief Keef as a weapon in a controversial post—"Chief Keef is a 'Bomb,' he represents the senseless savagery that white people see when the news speaks of Chicago violence. A Bomb has no responsibility or blame, it does what it was created to do; DESTROY!"—and called his major-label deal exploitation.
Besides scaring other rappers, he's left music fans perplexed. WBEZ's Marcus Gilmer asked a question I've been asking myself: "One of the stories I just don’t 'get' from the last few months is the hype over teenage rapper Chief Keef. Sure, I like that single that blew up OK, but beyond the fact that he’s young and has a criminal record, what else sets him apart? Give me Killer Mike or Big K.R.I.T. instead."
It's not just that Keef is unremittingly grim. Even the bleakest hip-hop usually has something else going on, something that suggests the pleasures of creating it. It might be, to use Kiler Mike as an example, politicized anger. It might be poignant humor, like Ice Cube's description of his father ("papa was a rolling stone in the sixties / and he liked green just like Bill Bixby"). It might be breathless, virtuoso internal rhymes ("He nose-dove and sold nada. And so the soap opera / Is told, it unfolds, I suppose it's old, partner / But the beat goes on: da-da-dum da-dum da-dah").
There's nothing of this to Chief Keef's music. It's hard, cold, and affectless, with sawed-off lines and numbingly repetitive syllables. Every rhyme in his hit single "I Don't Like" rhymes off of like: right, night, white, hype, sight, fight. "Everyday" is the same; the title is used 36 times in a song with two verses and two hooks. There aren't any narratives; it's almost exclusively Keef saying what he does and doesn't do, what he does and doesn't like. There's not much in the way of humor or wordplay. It's mercilessly simple:
In my own lane
Its a smart game
Cause of snitch [redacted] playing
I let it fire bang!
I am not lame
All my [redacted] grind
Thats a smart thing
Cause we gangbang
We is insane
We make bullets rain
There's no trickery, no art, no surprise, just oppressive repetition to match the grim, unrevelatory lyrics. You could chalk it up to youth, but Chief Keef told RedEye's Kyle Kramer that he used to have a different style.
I know what I'm doing. I mastered it. And I don't even really use metaphors or punchlines. 'Cause I don't have to. But I could. People don't want me to start doing it. But I don't like that. I think that's doing too much. I'd rather just say what's going on right now. Real talk, you know? Like, what's going on. I don't really like metaphors or punchlines like that. I'll leave it up to them, people who do that. It's good for them. But as me doing it, I don't do it. I could, though. I used to, when I first started rapping, coming up. I did, I done it before but then I slowed down like 2008, 2009. I slowed down with that punchlines and metaphor.
Metaphor opens up wordplay; Chief Keef made a conscious decision to shut it down. His songs are lyrically, rhymically, and emotionally diminshed, which is why they sound so airless and claustrophobic: "for all its familiarity, the mixtape is noticeably alien, with the young Keef leaving behind Flocka's headbanging intensity for a delivery and presence that is unsettlingly calm and unemotional." It's not even fatalistic, because that would imply a self-consciousness, a moral consideration, that isn't there in the lyrics. It just is, over and over again. Not for nothing is the scene he's from called drill-hop, both meanings of the word drill implied.
This is what scares people about Chief Keef. Whether it's Cozart himself or the persona he creates through Keef, he sounds gone and done at 17, with no distance from the violence of his lyrics, distance that would allow at least a ray of hope in:
His neck and hands are already covered in ink, creating a deeper cast to his already dark skin. His dreadlocks are just long enough in the front that he stares out from under them like a veil…. A man called Success with an ambiguous role in the crew adds, “An average little kid in Chicago is probably eight. When you hit nine, 10, you ain’t little no more.”
It scared the VP at Interscope who signed him—it's why he was signed, of course. It scared my former colleague Jessica Hopper, who reported on Chief Keef for the Tribune, so much so that she asked if her city was gone in an elegiac essay: "It feels like too much to bear witness to, this city, these days…. I dreamt of Keef's baby, who is only 2 months older than my littlest baby. I dreamt of Lupe crying after he cried on MTV, which is I think how everyone feels. It was the most emotionally fatiguing story I have reported in years. The messed up city is getting the pop star it deserves in Keef."
Chief Keef broke through because his music found one new hard vein of fear, not by caking on further layers of blood but with bloodlessness, shocking with its absence of shock. Felipe Delerme's revelatory piece for Fader, "Chief Keef: Lost Boys" echoes Hopper's reaction to Chief Keef's fatiguing story, music, and hometown:
Keef’s notoriety comes primarily from “I Don’t Like,” a menacing anthem a local party promoter describes as the perfect Chicago song because “[redacted] just hate everything out here.” Kanye West, the city’s most infamous hip-hop export, who also described his hometown as “the city of hella haters….”
That in turn echoes farther back to another violent Chicago summer: "I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."