It’s inevitably saddening to watch rappers who once risked international crossover success become gradually regarded as more marginal, release by release.
It’s inevitably saddening to watch rappers who once risked international crossover success become gradually regarded as more marginal, release by release. In 2012—Chief Keef’s breakout year—the particulars of the then-teenage, Chicago-reared rapper’s music was as much under scrutiny as his sudden, controversial rise. These days, only stories of career self-sabotage, and legal or financial missteps (most recently, his suspension from his record deal with hologram and online television entrepreneur Alki David’s multipurpose entertainment corporation FilmOn) make for major headlines. The unlikely regional and viral success of “Faneto”—a fiery, rhythmically deranged 2014 mixtape track—was comparatively little commented upon, despite around 60 million cumulative YouTube views, a lengthy paper trail of virality, a 10-minute remix featuring the biggest names in his hometown’s hip-hop scene, and even a Drake cover.
Admittedly, there’s a top-heavy static-to-signal ratio on Keef’s mixtapes of the past two years. His default ritual—long days and nights in the studio with his in-house production team—results in plenty of appealing, distinctively styled rap songs, but filling his increasingly frequent projects out to between 15 and 20 tracks necessarily makes for redundancy. The Keef devotee must be prepared to rifle through his tapes, scouting for the buried handful of standalone hits. It’s to be expected, really: The over-saturation business model is the profitable and logical choice for a modern street rapper with a diehard fan base.
Releases like December’s Nobody 2 evidence the downside of this approach. The tape is both on the more unruly end of the musical spectrum for Keef, and his most poorly curated project since 2013’s Bang 2. That’s not to say it’s uninteresting. It is, at least, full of inimitable and decidedly bonkers beats from notoriously prickly executive producer 12 Million (formerly 12Hunna), who also masterminded its predecessor—last December’s meditative, AutoTune-drenched Nobody—and is threatening a third installment this month. On songs like “Phone” and “Sex With Me,” most elements of the drum loops lag queasily behind the tempo. “Andale,” even more extremely, plays out like some untested gear-operated machine lurching into motion and chugging unsteadily along, obscuring twinkling synth constellations in the background. One of 12 Million’s hallmarks is his invasive snare patterns, in which wildly backfiring trails of delay become more important that the actual on-the-beat hits themselves. Keef’s terse phrasing holds everything together, demarcating time stylishly, if sometimes to little additional effect.
Keef songs like “Mirror” function like levels of early Nintendo games—not because of the actual bleep-bloop sonic likeness, but because of the mileage they get from the deceptively complex overlap of a handful of miniature, mechanistic moving parts. Keef’s vocal take sounds as assembled from tiny scraps as the beat itself, but packs in just enough in the way of conversational one-liners to lend the track cohesion (“I think you need a chair/ Waiting on me to fail/ You say you seen some money/ N*gga, tell me where/ Is it over there/ Or is it in here?”) “Mirror” is enough to make one go cross-eyed after focusing in too hard on any of its particular irregular elements, but falls together perfectly after pulling back and zoning out a bit.
But though 12 Million’s work on this tape is his most compelling to date, Keef, unfortunately, is less present than ever. On tracks like “Sex With Me,” he murmurs nearly inaudibly in the background for the better part of the song—more a sound effect than anything else. On the appropriately titled, delay-riddled “In the Stu,” it sounds like he’s set foot in the booth without even an embryonic idea or plan of attack. Sometimes, as on the distorted jeremiad of a pre-chorus on “Tony Hawk,” he’s nearly incomprehensible.
Nobody 2 is a far cry from the more lyrically clever and emotionally charged Sorry 4 the Weight, and Bang 3’s diplomatic songwriting and sonic clarity. This is chilly, uninviting music, implicitly and explicitly about isolation. “I feel like I need to separate myself from hip-hop, don’t let nobody come around me, don’t let nobody learn from me,” Keef intones menacingly on the album’s central skit. A few years into his still-influential career, nobody quite sounds like Chief Keef in rap music. But if he doesn’t let anyone push him to complicate his now-time-tested vision, his songs may never expand back into being something more than fringe experiments, and even the interest those hold may, after a healthy amount of reiteration, wane for good.