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Album review: Chief Keef, 'Finally Rich'

*** (out of four)

In the span of a year, 17-year-old rapper and Englewood native Chief Keef went from being a kid caught with a gun to a poster boy for all of Chicago's violence. Yet Keef's Interscope debut, "Finally Rich," contrary to what some may expect, is not a collection of songs about gun violence. Keef talks way more about having money and doing drugs and continues to show that he cannot be classified as a one-note artist. His songs are too immediate—not to mention fun to sing along with.

Certainly, there's always been a level of moral maneuvering involved in liking Chief Keef's music – the fact that an interview at a gun range with Pitchfork is at the center of his latest legal troubles is just one indication that peoples' reasons for their taste in music are not always tasteful. The mental gymnastics required to enjoy the music remain complicated, and it's understandable that some may look at "Finally Rich" and ask, "How can I root for an album that feels like a record label's attempt to monetize a community's pain?” Chief Keef's rise to fame happened without a record label, and Interscope has since struggled to figure out how to market someone with an open disregard for following the accepted formula for self-promotion. The assumption has been that the artist's appeal falls into the familiar, lazily construed mold of the "gangster rapper."

So “Finally Rich,” which shoehorns Keef in with the Young Jeezys of the world, certainly warrants a common critique—that mass-marketing this music lets the dreaded Major Label System cash in on a rubbernecking fascination with a destructive environment. How could anybody think it was appropriate for Chief Keef to make a song about doing drugs with 50 Cent, a man who is twice his age? Why would anyone presume that a Chief Keef song needed a verse about Rick Ross driving his Bentley through a gang war?

And yet. It works. Mostly because the quality of the music rises above the complaints it generates.
Chief Keef has a unique talent for creating memorable hooks and concise but distinctive lyrical phrases, as well as an ear for fantastic, lush production (thanks to frequent producer Young Chop). An album that emphasizes these strengths may not do much to win over those who already find Keef to be repetitive or simplistic. But for anyone worried that “I Don't Like” or “3hunna” (which sound better here thanks to some studio magic) were one-off successes, songs like Keef's latest single, “Love Sosa,” are proof that his callous charm has staying power--as well as some stylistic range. The 50 Cent collaboration, “Hate Bein' Sober,” features 50's best verse in years (as well as a typically corny one from Wiz Khalifa), and it's still totally Keef's to make an obvious smash hit.
Keef continues to sound good yelling, as he does with French Montana on “Diamonds,” but he's also great at sing-song hooks, as on “Ballin',” the song here that seems most in step with the rest of New Chicago rap. His absurd hau-hau-hau laugh on “Laughing to the Bank” and his so-stupid-its-brilliant declaration that he's “cooler than a cooler” on “Hallelujah” both already feel iconic.
Yet there's something that still feels hollow: The implied camaraderie, the feeling that the natural setting for this music is a room full of guys acting stupid together, is diluted by the presentation. Is Chief Keef lonely? He spends a lot of time talking about his friends – his cousin Fredo Santana gets mentioned in probably half the songs – but, other than Lil Reese's existing verse on “I Don't Like,” none of them make an appearance. An opening monologue, an interview excerpt and a sample of the “Chief Keef is out of jail” WorldStarHipHop video serve as reminders of the rapper's origins, but, in a way, this album feels like it was made in a bubble.

Rather than delivering a messy pileup of Chicago rappers like Fredo, Lil Durk or King L, which could have ended as either a total wreck or an unexpected classic, “Finally Rich” plays for a safer middle ground by separating Keef from his surroundings and leaving him to his own carefully monitored devices. At the top, it would appear, it's just him – and perhaps some label heads.

Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic

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