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Chief Keef plays it cold on major-label debut

Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)

Chief Keef's major-label debut, "Finally Rich" (Interscope/Glory Boys), caps a year in which he started out living in his grandmother's home under house arrest for a gun charge and ended up with an Interscope contract, his own record label, and a national stage as Chicago's latest hip-hop star.

Keef's video for the brusquely insistent "I Don't Like" was viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube, inspired a Kanye West remix, and eventually cracked the Billboard singles chart. He appeared at the Pitchfork Music Festival and Lollapalooza, in a performance punctuated by fake gun shots. He also became a symbol of the violence-torn South Side streets on which he grew up; shooting deaths in Chicago have climbed past 400 this year, up 25 percent from 2011.

Keef isn't just chronicling that culture of violence, he's immersed in it. He remains under investigation in the shooting death last summer of fellow rapper Lil JoJo, and is facing a court hearing on whether he violated terms of his probation for an earlier gun charge by brandishing a weapon in a video at a gun range.

Like many of the victims cut down in Chicago's streets, Chief Keef is just a kid. He was born Keith Cozart 17 years ago to a teenage mother and dropped out of high school to focus on his music with his teenage friend and producer Young Chop, a k a Tyree Pittman. A series of mix tapes and club performances built a significant viral following. Soon the major labels came sniffing around, with Interscope – the home of Dr. Dre and Eminem -- eventually signing him.

Though a few heavy-hitters such as Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and 50 Cent make cameo appearances, "Finally Rich" sounds of a piece with Keef's sparse, menacing mix tapes, with the majority of the tracks produced by Young Chop. It reprises his on-line hits "I Don't Like" and "3 Hunna," adding only a Ross verse to the latter. Young Chop keeps things pared back, with crisp snare beats and keyboards creating a sinister atmosphere as thick as the smoke that shrouds Keef on the album cover.

"Finally Rich" owes plenty to the menacing inner-city narratives of Jeezy, Waka Flocka and Gucci Mane. Keef's innovation, if it can be called that, is to appear even colder than any of his predecessors, devoid of feelings, let alone guilt or remorse.

But Keef is a remote presence on his major-label debut. Video of Keef's club performances depict a performer who knows how to work his fans into a frenzy. But at Lollapalooza he came off as distant and indistinct, melting into a crew of friends and fellow MCs, one of the boyz in the 'hood rather than a star in his own right.

He is equally subdued, almost numbed out on much of "Finally Rich." Ostensibly, the album chronicles his ascent from ghetto afterthought to a life filled with weed, jewels, cash and the swaggering good fortune of a newbie "baller." But Keef mostly mumbles; call it robotic, deadpan, stoned -- he comes across as supremely disinterested in engaging anyone other than his most diehard fans. His rhymes convey little sense of nuance or delight in wordplay. His narrators flash guns and toss off truculent threats. Rare is the 17-year-old rap star who sounds burned out on his first album, but even keeping up with his bank roll in "Love Sosa" sounds like a chore: "Count so much money that my fingers cramp."

The catchiest tracks turn chants into hooks, and press repeat: Strings and tolling bells underline the joyless "Hallelujah," and electric piano opens up the pervasive dread on "Kay Kay" even as the Auto-Tuned vocals erase Keef's personality. The formula melts into migraine-inducing repetition on "No Tomorrow" and "Laughin' to the Bank."

Only in a brief, introductory interview snippet to "Ballin'" does the gangsta cartoon give way to a surprisingly softspoken young man. "I gotta job now, I gotta daughter too," he says, noting that he's far exceeded his mother's expectations and perhaps even his own. There is more humanity and engagement in these 40 seconds than there is anywhere else on the album. It gives the listener who isn't already a rabid fan a reason to care about Keith Cozart, if not Chief Keef.

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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