Sorry 4 the Weight
Give in: the 16-year-old Chief Keef who made Finally Rich isn't coming back. And the 20-year-old Chief Keef—now one of the most prolific names in rap—isn't going anywhere. Sorry 4 the Weight represents the latest evolution of a rapper who still spins out ideas at a rapid pace, even as radio and his label have abandoned him. Each release offers the same performer at a new angle; if you think you've identified the core mechanism that makes his art work, the next tape will toss that notion in favor of a new seam of creativity. Sorry 4 the Weight finds the rapper in a more focused, writerly mode, when compared with the lunging blunt-force-trauma raps of Back From the Dead 2. Likewise a substantial step away from the pretty, melodic Nobody, Keef is not treading the same old ground. The production here—largely courtesy of Young Chop's Choppsquad and GGP, although Keef himself produces one track—is rougher, more grim. A dense street tape, Sorry 4 the Weight will reward converts while reifying the existing divide between fans and detractors.
While passive Keef fans now treat his 2012 Interscope debut as if it were his Illmatic—the perfect iteration of his style that he's since failed to live up to—it was Back From the Dead that qualifies as the real game changer. And its impact was less Illmatic than it was The Chronic: a flawed, craggy meteor whose overall aesthetic remade the hip-hop landscape. In the wake of that moment of overwhelming attention, Keef zigged when everyone expected him to zag. At the time the media spotlight hit, his flow had a laconic nonchalance learned from Gucci, but delivered by a more dynamic voice. When he emerged from jail in spring 2013, his rapping began to downshift: Whether under the influence of drugs (a common scapegoat for his stylistic "slide") or merely as an effort to shake the rapidly growing crowd of imitators, Keef found a new rhythmic pocket. On Sorry 4 the Weight, he alternates mainly between decayed singing (as "That's What") or rapping in low tone alternating between a growl and a whisper, as if he were standing right next to the microphone.
In contrast with Back From the Dead 2, his latest is less concerned with a singularly dynamic production style. Those who continue to insist Keef only sounds good due to Chop beats are wrong—as many Ace Hood and Young Chop collaborations have proven conclusively—but much of the production here is considerably pro forma, a trap sound that isn't too far from your typical Atlanta mixtape. The tape's obvious highlights pull away from this mean: the staggering, swaggering "Vet Lungs" alternates between chimes and fat synthesizers, while Keef's self-produced "What Up" is a queasy, bongo-driven meditation that sounds like a poisoned version of Bobby Valentino's "Slow Down." The GGP-produced "5AM" is another simmering mid-tempo record built upon layers of organs at its chorus. And "Yours" lets in a little light, a burst of joy conveyed through a theremin-esque melody. But by and large, the beats slot in well with Atlanta trap production of the last several years, a statement of intent that Keef perhaps isn't as concerned with being a weird rap outsider as much as he is an original voice within a familiar milieu.
But even over typical production Keef is more than a rapper; like many of the most important artists of the past decade (Max B, Gucci, Drake, Future, etc.), he's a pop songwriter at heart. Records like "W.W.Y.D." and "Yours" show his facility for choruses and melody, while "That's What" exemplifies his continued strength as a creator of hooky, ingratiating rhythmic patterns in the vein of "Love Sosa." On "Get Money," his use of ad-libs to call-and-response his own lead melody in the chorus shows considerably more compositional forethought than most performers today.
Interspersed with Keef interview audio, Sorry 4 the Weight sells the rapper as a more sympathetic figure than he's ever been in the public sphere. These interludes, which append several different tracks, find Keef explaining the origins of GloGang, the story of his rise as told through rapper cosigns, and the difference between influence and biting ("Biting hands, biting arms...I don't bite. If I'm influenced by a person...My music will be 'influenced by...,' but it will always be Chief Sosa being himself at the same time"). Though undeniably charming, they do serve as something of a bluffer's guide for empathizing with a guy painted as a monster by the press. Much of what he says is also present in his music for those paying close attention. ("Got so many styles, niggas bite one," he boasts on "5 AM.")
Sorry 4 the Weight sells the rapper as a more sympathetic figure than he's ever been in the public sphere.
But this all puts Keef's rapping at center stage, and as ever he's bluntly economical, writing in language that often flips into snatches of dialog ("bitch, I know it's W-A-I-T, aite B?" he says defensively of his tape's title). He can be a vivid writer, with creative imagery sprinkled throughout: "Pull up on your daughter, I'm a shark up in the water." His writing has improved, although it can sound subtly derivative of Gucci at times: "Me and you, we got money disagreements, can't come to no conclusion 'cause your money ain't where me at." If this tape draws attention to a particular shortcoming, it's how his lyrical style is still in a state of becoming, not arrival. His clear interest in pushing slant rhymes to their outer limit is one of his strengths, yet it can occasionally undercut the mood. Lines like "Bitches be so corny, they is full of corn" are jarring.
Yet Keef is working, as he says, with so many styles that it's difficult to fault the occasional overreach: When compared with his competition, he has a sense for multivalent musicality that escapes the grasp of most of his peers, with the possible exceptions of Chance the Rapper and Young Thug. Such arguments typically lead to the suggestion that his work is being over-analyzed; that he would seldom put as much thought into his music as has been put into this essay. It's true that his music is created at great speed; in the last six months, he's released three full mixtapes and, concurrently, several handfuls of YouTube loosies. Yet the economics of the LiveMixtapes era requires this kind of prolific pace, something the old industry would have stopped up: We get to witness his evolution in real time. Instead of perfecting individual songs, he records a multitude of variations, creating an ever-growing cloud of ideas and inspiration.
And he clearly considers this a part of his craft, as he says at the beginning of "Ten Toes Down": "I'm always working. That's all I need to be happy: work, work, work myself. That's all I've been doing for life. I'm gonna never stop working. I'm gonna keep perfecting my craft. I'm gonna keep going, I'm gonna keep trying new stuff, I'm gonna keep trying whatever best fits me.... I'm gonna keep being happy." Although by refusing to play ball with the industry he's been remanded to its margins, the work he's making is central to its sound—from "Coco" to "Try Me" to "We Dem Boyz." Although imitator-competitors have sprung up both at home and in other regions, his hustle defines the vanguard of street rap entering 2015.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him at @somanyshrimp.