All year long, Chief Keef’s lame quarrel with 6ix9ine, a young novelty rapper and Toucan Sam impersonator from New York, has threatened to overshadow his actual rap career.
Keef will close out the year with an appearance at the Armory as part of the Snowta festival, and his set will include the medley of hits he recorded during his brief, tumultuous tenure with Interscope, where he managed to do great work, albeit in fitful spurts and amid constant distraction and pulpy palace intrigue. But even before then, Keef had been cranking out excellent gangsta rap with the ease and regularity of his surrogate big brother Gucci Mane. Back from the Dead, the mixtape he recorded in his grandmother’s modest Chicago bungalow at 16 years old, is unforgettably vicious.
While not the ablest rapper (“lyrical proficiency of Chief Keef” isn’t a hill you necessarily want to die on), Keef’s ear for melody is so intuitive and elephantine that he can make good music in his sleep. Give him a leaf-blower and he’ll make it sound catchy. That was true in 2012, when Keef made the Interscope-funded Finally Rich, and it was true last August when he dropped the wonderful Mansion Muzik. (Unfortunately, Mansion Muzik got very little attention; maybe that was bad karma washing up on his shore after so many months of trading childish blows with 6ix9ine.)
In 2013, at the height of an opiate addiction that endangered his creativity, Keef released two mixtapes he would later come to regret: Bang 2 and Almighty So. The prevailing view at the time was that the rapper’s addiction had robbed him of his will to work—he conceded as much in an interview with Billboard the following year, calling Almighty So a “mistake” padded with mush-mouthed garblings. Keef had plunged himself into a fulsome wreckage, but he’s been on relatively solid ground ever since.
The 2014 sequel to Back from the Dead pitted Keef’s improprietous gangsta-isms against beautiful beats reminiscent of Aphex Twin; later that fall came Nobody, another fascinating study in contrasts. Keef was unusually witty on 2015’s Sorry 4 the Weight, but he hadn’t yet discovered that sunshine is the best disinfectant. It was this revelation that animated 2017’s Thot Breaker, a ballad-heavy affair that gave the broad appearance of chivalry.
Under the consultation of Jimmy Iovine, Cozart made thug life sound downright romantic with hits ranging from “Love Sosa” to “Kobe” to “Citgo.” Since then he’s retrenched completely from the mainstream of hip-hop. He’s no longer a “star” in the sense that his music gets played on the radio; he’s a button-pushing provocateur. Whatever the case, his catalogue is expansive and accomplished.