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Drill music began as an amalgamation of the darkest, grimmest, and most violent aspects of Chicago culture that sparked violence on the Southside, with the artists responding to the growing crisis with music that repurposed it into a nihilistic, anarchist view of society. Chief Keef was salient in the subgenre’s rise. In the early 2010s, his trap music rang out of high schools and became a bombastic, yet realistic representation of the Parkway Garden Homes’ anxious atmosphere. His raps were bleak, sharp, and grating – three factors that Kanye West latched onto in 2012 when he discovered Keef’s “I Don’t Like.” Suddenly, a city-wide phenomenon was thrust onto the world stage. Keef was propelled into a fatherly role; many who later emulated the aesthetics of drill music modeled their approach after Keef’s. He mastered the convention, moved onto new ones, and hasn’t looked back. Since then, he’s often been ridiculed for stepping away from the sound that birthed his career. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not crazy. He just has an affinity for testing the waters – like true artists do.
The signs were always there. His dead-eye delivery on his 2012 breakthrough mixtape Back From The Dead was a lurching delight, fooling people into thinking that lyrical tenacity was the only thing that he chose to channel in his raps. Keef’s snarl and anger bared menacingly through his gritted teeth as he spit. But this album was designed with one purpose: attract the attention to get to the next level. When that happens, the true creativity comes out.
His major label debut Finally Rich came later that year, setting off a few red flags from those looking for the traditional drill sound that he cultivated. Bass heavy, violent rhymes existed in the same atmosphere as something that was unlike anything that could be associated with Keef thus far: vulnerable singing tracks, still about violence, but performed with such a whine that listeners didn’t know whether to seek help or take him serious. (“Macaroni Time” was the album’s weakest link with its whimpering chorus and delectable stylings.)
Keef’s trajectory pushed him away from the Drill scene. He pounded the genre’s conventions into the pavement in his 2013 releases Bang, For Greater Glory 3, Almighty So, finding his footing in a liminal space between violent trap rap and more vulnerable crooning. He pushed farther into bolder territory on Nobody in 2014, his collaborative studio album with producer 12 Million, consciously regressing his delivery to naught but a mumble on the album’s title track. 2015’s Sorry 4 Tha Weight felt conflicted with its focus on bringing back some of the more ominous stylings of his early career, but the mumbling that had been becoming a constant presence, arguably for the worse, returned in full force. Bombastic, brutal bass boxed his retreating vocals into submission. A surprise feature from Andy Milonakis who, with one verse, managed to steal the attention from the album showed just how much Keef had changed since his beginnings. What was once a bright career bereft with energy-inducing rap that transfixed the larger world was now one of an acquired taste style, often listened to out of rebelliousness instead of sheer interest.
Keef’s on-and-off relationship with celebrity has often been at odds with what feels like growing troll-like music. He largely stays off the radar aside from releases, features, and tours. His music grows more arrogant and farther away from what we traditionally define as hip-hop. It may read as a beckon for public attention, but time and time again, he skirts away from it. His experimentation worked a tad bit better spread out across entire mixtapes; when an entire body of work is a set of trials, it’s a little harder to swallow.
The Cozart is Keef’s latest, and his most experimental to date. It feels like a high-art project from Tru TV’s Impractical Jokers, the mixtape being a prop used to embarrass one of the four comedians with its weirdness. Across 17 tracks, Keef raps, sings, brings in other people to sing, and mumbles in increasingly off-kilter ways. “Soldier” is perhaps the biggest offender of traditional Keef fandom. Never before has Keef stepped in the direct opposite direction of contemporary rap. Largely clear of bass, “Soldier” incorporates a tantalizing techno structure underneath its gaudy grooveline. Keef bounces like never before, an element of goofiness making its way into his latest. The track has garnered its fair share of laughs and ridicule, but it’s indicative of one of the more flexible artists in the contemporary rap landscape.
Kanye West, prior to his idiotic shenanigans involving our Celebrity-In-Chief, was looked at as one of the most innovative rappers in the genre’s history. He largely keeps the same flow, but plays with the construction of the song around it. Whether it’s incorporating Auto-Tune or keeping the kind of samples that he uses in a constant state of flux, Kanye’s been applauded for the same kind of creativity that Keef’s been lambasted for. Keef regularly steps out of his comfort zone, and, lately, in increasingly larger doses. It’s arguable that he’s shown an even larger propensity for change than his collaborator; Keef mixes and steps outside of genres while Kanye merely observes them. Maybe that’s what attracted Kanye to him in the first place – Keef’s fountain of untapped, explorative potential reminded him of Ye’s own creative energy.
The Cozart is Keef’s boldest departure. That he began as one of modern drill’s founding fathers feels like it occurred a lifetime ago; he’s now on the fringe of modern rap relevancy, experimenting with structures with no end goal in mind. The running joke is that Keef’s high out of his mind, tinkering because the drugs are fucking up his creative process. But he was like this at the inception of his career; if anything, Keef’s creative vision has never been clearer. This is a guy who is 36 projects deep into his career at the tender age of 23 years old; somehow, he manages to keep up the pace when many others would have faltered or, at least, slowed down.
Keef’s moved on nearly altogether from the world of nihilistic splendor that granted him the opportunity to create how he truly wants. True artists prioritize innovation over returning to the same concepts that placed them in the position that they’re in. There’s no reason to keep beating a dead horse. Keef has shown that, throughout the course of his career, the freedom to explore as one sees fit can be salivating. He’s not batshit for releasing the weirdest music that he possibly can; he’s setting a template that’s integral for our culture to continue to grow.
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