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The Return of Chief Keef

Benny Flash
Benny Flash

Five years ago, Chief Keef was hip-hop’s next big thing. Rising out of Chicago’s rough Englewood neighborhood with a hit single at the age of 16, the rapper, born Keith Farrelle Shantique Cozart, quickly became the most controversial artist in the industry. His original 2012 video for “I Don’t Like,” which was deleted from YouTube because it had too many guns in it, set the standard for gun-heavy, no-frills music videos moving forward, and the critical acclaim of his debut album, Finally Rich, from “hipster” publications like Spin and Pitchfork caused some to wonder whether rap’s moral center had moved too far to the White. His grasp of melody and catchy songwriting helped him elevate the homegrown drill sound to a national level, but most people outside Chicago had little understanding of how strong Keef’s grassroots support was within the city. Yet his widespread importance was immediately obvious: less than three months after Keef dropped “I Don’t Like” in 2012, Kanye hi-jacked it as the lead single for his upcoming G.O.O.D. Music album. A year later, Keef was one of only two rappers featured on Yeezus.

One night in March 2012, Larry Jackson was sitting in his office at Interscope Records with singer/songwriter J. Valentine. At the time, Jackson was the executive vice president of A&R at the label, and that same night he’d been blown away after hearing Maroon 5’s “Pay Phone” for the first time. But when Valentine asked if Jackson had heard of Chief Keef, the A&R vet’s ears perked up; his younger brother had sent him a link to the Chicago rapper’s music earlier that same day. Jackson pulled up the “I Don’t Like” video, which he says only had about 1,000 plays or so at the time, and proceeded to watch in awe.

“I saw the new face of hip-hop,” Jackson remembers about watching that video for the first time. “The feeling that I had within me was like… holy shit. This looks like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’”

Unaware of how dangerous Chicago’s South Side was at the time but cognizant of the impending bidding war for Keef, Jackson flew to Englewood to meet with the teenage rapper while Keef was still living at his grandmother Margaret Carter’s house. Under house arrest for months after a gun charge in December 2011, Keef shot his first viral videos at his grandmother’s place, including “John Madden,” “It’s Cracking,” “Everydays Halloween” and “3 Hunna,” plus “I Don’t Like.”

“I shouldn’t have been in the belly of the beast to the degree that I was,” remembers Jackson, who’s now the head of content at Apple Music, “but I loved the music and I was such a proponent of wanting to be the conduit for the culture that I put myself arguably in harm’s way to really get it done. I don’t think anybody else who was offering him a deal at that time was going to Englewood to sit at the foot of his grandmother’s bed and talk to her about my vision for her grandson.”

Benny Flash
Benny Flash

After a bidding war that found Birdman, T.I. and Jeezy all interested in signing him, Keef signed a three-year, three-album deal with Interscope that was reportedly worth up to $6 million, and though originally billed as a mixtape by Keef himself, Finally Rich became the debut album set to drop in 2012. By early October of that year, Keef and Young Chop, who had produced “I Don’t Like,” had another hit on their hands with “Love Sosa.”

But when the album was released in December 2012, it sold a disappointing 50,000 copies first week, and Keef’s contract with Interscope had a caveat to save the label from losing out on their investment: if Finally Rich didn’t sell 250,000 copies in a year, the label could drop him. Some felt the label didn’t do enough to market and promote the LP; Jackson later told Billboard, “[Keef] sold 300,000 with no promotion. People can say it was a stupid deal, but the project is in the black. Our marketing spend on it was literally crumbs.” Chop says the label rushed the album’s release.

What followed was a year of turmoil between Keef and Interscope. He served multiple stints in jail, lost a $230,000 lawsuit for not showing up to a London show and ended up in rehab. He released two mixtapes, Bang 2 and Almighty So, but neither proved as popular as his previous work. By early 2014, Keef released what would be his final single for Interscope, “Fuck Rehab.” Soon after, his cousin, Mario “Blood Money” Hess, was murdered in Chicago. That’s when Jackson says he decided to move Keef out to L.A., and in May of that year, another bombshell dropped—Jimmy Iovine was leaving Interscope to work at Apple after the tech giant acquired his Beats company. Iovine would take Dr. Dre and Larry Jackson with him, and by October, Keef was dropped from Interscope. “When Jimmy n Dre left that’s when I said fuck Interscope,” Keef tweeted shortly after news of his departure from the label broke. “That’s what I signed up for not this new staff! Of WhiteHonkies!”

Ever since, Keef’s career has taken one bizarre twist after another. In early 2015, he signed a two-album deal with eccentric Greek billionaire Alki David’s FilmOn TV, and later released the long-awaited Bang 3, though it ended up being a confusing two-disc affair that Keef wasn’t happy with. By the end of the year, the label suspended Keef for booking shows and releasing music without their consent, and David sued Keef’s management company for millions. The status of Keef and David’s relationship has been unclear ever since, and in 2016, Keef made passing reference to being “retired.”

Benny Flash
Casimir “Mula” Spaulding

But now, in 2017, the 21-year-old rhymer has found new life. Chief Keef was quiet for most of 2016, stockpiling hundreds of songs in the studio without releasing an official project, but was resurrected on the first day of the new year with the Two Zero One Seven mixtape, followed by a string of excellent loosies like “Kills,” “Minute,” “Get Sleep” and “Can You Be My Friend.”

A few weeks ago, XXL talked to Keef in one of the few interviews he’s granted to press in recent years, speaking about his new project and what’s to come. He already considers Two Zero One Seven to be old news and says he was “just playing around” on the tape. A couple of the songs are tributes to Bankroll Fresh via mimicry of the late rapper’s style, like on “Reefah.”

“My boys fucked with him hard as fuck, Tadoe and them. They all put me on him and shit,” Keef says of Bankroll. “But it took them a long time [to put me on] because it’s hard for me to even listen to anybody. But on [Two Zero One Seven], I had a couple songs showing respect. You don’t hear me rap like nobody too often either, so I just had three or four songs on there with that style of Bank.”

Asked when he recorded the mixtape, Keef is in disbelief. “I couldn’t tell you that, man. I be high as hell. You know how much music I record, dude? That shit is in the back… Two Zero One Seven is old as hell now. I really don’t know. I got too much.”

The only problem with the tape is that Keef mixed most of it and forgot to turn the volume up. “That’s me making the plug-ins inactive,” he groans. “There are two songs on there that are played loud. So them ones CB [his engineer Chris Barnett] mixed. But the rest of ’em that’s low, that’s me. Forgetting to turn the plug-in on.”

Casimir "Mula" Spaulding
Casimir “Mula” Spaulding

Keef produced most of Two Zero One Seven, but he isn’t doing much production these days. “I don’t make beats no more,” he admits. “I’ll make something every now and then, but I ain’t like heavy on it. It kinda messed my ear up. All I hear is the beat, I don’t hear the raps. I’m trying to hear the words, but all I’m listening to is the beat, trying to hear if it’s raw or not.”

“Can You Be My Friend,” one of the boldest songs he’s dropped in years, was directly inspired by Drake’s “One Dance,” and Keef wants to work with Jamaican artists on more reggae, dancehall and Caribbean music. At one point, Keef wanted to change the sound of “Can You Be My Friend,” but Young Chop suggested otherwise. It’s a sound we can expect to hear more of on Keef’s long-awaited Thot Breakers mixtape, which now has a release date of June 9.

Initially, Keef was planning to drop the tape on Mother’s Day. “I’ll just probably do all friendly [songs] because I’m always dissing thots,” says Keef as he describes the sound of Thot Breakers. “I was thinking of putting a couple songs of stuff like ‘Can You Be My Friend’ and I got a song called ‘Slow Dance.’ It’s like R&B, pop type shit. I don’t know how to say it. Sosa&B.” Later in our conversation, Keef also says he’s ready to “cross over—some Flo-Rida shit, get on that lane, Pitbull wave.”

He mentions three artists he’d like to work with: Rihanna, Chris Brown and R. Kelly. “I gotta get up with R. Kelly and do a lil’ song for Chicago, couple songs for Chicago and for the world too though,” says Keef. “Do some slow jams, like two slow songs, then a lil’ decent hard song.”

Keef declined to comment on his current relationship with FilmOn, but a rep from the label tells XXL Keef and David have “made up” and David is “producing the autobiographical concept album The Cozart they always planned.” Keef’s team wouldn’t go quite as far.

Before Chief Keef landed at FilmOn, though, he had an opportunity to be the first artist with an Apple Music deal. “This was before I ended up with Alki, messing with Dro,” Keef remembers, referencing his former manager Rovan “Dro” Manuel. “They were talking about taking me to Apple. This was before they did anybody with Apple Music. You know what Larry [Jackson] called me and said? He said, ‘You’re gonna be the first artist on Apple Music,’ and I turned it down. Because, you know… I don’ know. I just didn’t do it. But I would have been the first artist on Apple Music.”

“We had a conversation about it,” confirms Jackson, “but Keith has always been enigmatic, and I didn’t even expect him to leap at it. I didn’t feel slighted because I know he’s so enigmatic, and often times you think he’s gonna go right and he goes left.”

Casimir "Mula" Spaulding
Casimir “Mula” Spaulding

Jackson had a heavy hand in sequencing the rapper’s original Bang 3 for Interscope that never got released, and Keef wasn’t satisfied with the version that eventually dropped on FilmOn. “It was okay, a couple songs,” he concedes. “That was a whole different style though. I don’t know what kind of style it was. I don’t really like that style. I just don’t like it. I think I could have did better with that, but that’s why there’s always later.”

He claims he stopped writing around 2012 or 2013, when he started sipping lean heavily (“I started trying to get on my Wayne shit. Wayne inspired that”). The last mixtape he wrote songs for was Almighty So, and ever since, “I just cut beats on, and whichever one I’m feeling, I go right in, waste no time.”

After phases of heavy experimentation with Auto-Tune and working with Atlanta producers like Metro Boomin and Zaytoven, Keef sounds like he’s finding his comfort zone again. At one point in 2016, he seemed disgruntled by what he saw in the rap game, and during a show around October, he spoke about his frustration with “colored hair” rappers. But many of those rappers, like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, are directly influenced by Keef. Now Sosa says he feels humbled to know how much he’s impacted today’s sound.

“I actually became humble to that shit,” he says as he reflects on his influence over the past five years. “To see that I can do that… I’m really out here having an influence on the vibes of the new, upcoming rappers. It’s cool though. I just wanna keep doing that, keep influencing. I came in 2012 with Finally Rich. They love that shit, boy. That shit stuck like glue. Then that whole situation, they look at me as a person and where I came from and see it’s real as fuck, and I’m so young. So this is like… if he can do it, they can do it. So I just want to keep doing that. For anybody else that come, that’s cool with me.”

Larry Jackson continues to see Keef’s impact on the game. “He’s not celebrated enough,” says Jackson. “Without Chief Keef, there would be no Lil Uzi Vert. Without Chief Keef, there would be no Young Dolph. Without Chief Keef, there would be no Lil Yachty or 21 Savage or [Playboi] Carti or Kodak Black. Keef was a real pioneer for this new wave of hip-hop right now.”

Talking to Keef, there’s a sense he doesn’t like dwelling on the past that much. At one point in our conversation, after he answered a question, he bluntly says “next” with the tone of a game show buzzer. However, he sounds like his head’s in the right space, and despite running into some legal trouble earlier this year, a rep for his team tells XXL his assault case in L.A. was dropped and the recent warrant issued for his arrest in Miami was quietly lifted. “I think he’s got an enormous future in the business,” says Jackson. “It’ll be a byproduct of his discipline.”

According to Jackson, Apple Music’s upcoming movement is geared toward “more expansive forms of content.” He’s dying to do a Chief Keef documentary, which would ultimately live on the streaming platform if given the green light.

But right now, Sosa’s focused. The rapper is in the middle of a musical comeback. “I’m gonna stop talking about it,” says Keef about what else he’s got coming this year. “I just want to show. I’m gonna get on my beast shit and get to dropping shit on their ass out of nowhere. Just know, you’re gonna see some heat.”

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