Chief Keef’s Strange, Incredible Journey to the American Dream
Article Soundtrack: Read this while playing Kendrick Lamar’s "U" and DMX’s "Slippin."
Dead or in jail, the only outcomes parents, teachers and television told us would come from living dangerously. Drug dealers and street hustlers, thugs and gangsters, all underworld dwellers glorified by Hollywood in a world where happy endings don’t exist. Tony Montana had to be killed, would hate for kids to believe success can be built with bricks of cocaine. Cain had to die, would hate for kids to believe you can do wrong and get a second chance at life. Mitch had to be murdered, an example to the kids that the game loves no man. Rap is one of the only avenues where stories of success blossom from poverty-stricken environments and don’t wither within months, weeks, days. Some do, most do. Right when they’re at the tunnel’s end, that light shining on them also makes for an illuminated target. Their stories are left behind, the distance they covered rewound. But the few that survive, documenting their scars for the world to view, they inspire. Scarface the rapper will always do more than Scarface the movie, The Black Album will touch more souls than Jay Z the business man. We know their backgrounds, who they were before, who they are now. Rap is beautiful because it can come from a place where beauty doesn’t exist and stay beautiful, an actual happy ending to the gangster movies.
Chief Keef comes from a place where the air is tainted by gun smoke and the streets, any street can become a graveyard for the gangbangers and the innocent, not the kind of imagery that Picasso would paint. Keef did, he painted his surroundings in a recording booth with a language his environment would understand. It’s violent, cold-hearted, and full of the kind of nihilism found in hopeless neighborhoods around the country. That’s why kids in high schools across Chicago gravitated toward his early music, it mirrored the familiar and felt authentic. The video that eventually broke him to the blogosphere wasn’t a song, but of a boy reacting to the news that Chief Keef was getting out of prison. His uncanny enthusiasm would make anyone that came across the viral video ask who could inspire such devotion, a resulting Gawker article attempted to answer that question, and the resulting flood of people seeking more on the Chicago phenom weren't ready for the answer that awaited. This is the domino that would trigger a chain of life changing events. At 16-years-old Chief Keef would become the poster child for Chicago’s violence and unveil an underground Chicago scene to the mainstream, a menace for media to sell as the new O-Dog to Middle America and a 6 million dollar signee to Interscope that hoped he would be become the new 50 Cent.
He was on house arrest for waving a gun at police officers and simultaneously became the most talked about rapper of 2012. The “Don’t Like” music video was doing millions of views and was shot in his bedroom. He went from unknown to 24-7 coverage from every hip-hop website and blog, from very little to a lot of money, it’s the kind of success story that you only can find in hip-hop. Until things took a turn for the worse. He got famous and found that just like before the fame, trouble was around every corner waiting with a smile. He was still a kid but suddenly his mistakes and sins were public news, the taunting of the death of rival Lil Jo Jo on Twitter, being banned from Instagram for uploading a picture of him receiving fellatio. Then it was the Pitchfork incident, he’s the only rapper I know to do an interview that violated his probation, a great example of the onslaught of people looking to cash in on Keef's violent embodiement, regardless of the cost to Keef himself. Lupe claimed he was “scared” of Chief Keef and the culture that birthed him. Keef’s response was a virtual Rick James power slap, and this was only 2012. The next year, January 15, he was taken into custody for a probation violation that lasted 60 days, sued on January 17 for an unattended show, arrested on May 20 for smoking weed in a Georgia hotel and disorderly conduct, then eight days later was arrested for driving 110 in a 55 zone, during which he infamously told the officer, “That’s a fast car, that’s why I bought it.” On October 15, he would return to jail for 20 days for probation violation and again on November 6 for the same charge. Somehow he found time to drop a major label album, Finally Rich, have Kanye jump on his bandwagon with a remix and drop the very popular “Love Sosa.”
All of Keef's interlaced troubles and successes allowed the media to continue dissecting his music and image illustrating this new prince of gangster rap. Some saw a savage that was going to corrupt children and ruin hip-hop, while others praised his mumbling, middle finger expression. Either way, their tone invoked a scary fascination with a zoo animal. Positive or negative, their writing read like an observation of a tiger behind a glass, something distant and fascinating and dangerous. Success took him from one jungle into another merciless lion's den, the world was waiting for him to implode, to fall under the circumstances that await those living recklessly fast, and in part he obliged. After Interscope dropped him in 2014 - turns out they wanted Keef the commercially successful nihilistic gangster, not Keef the actual nihilistic gangster - two trips to rehab and his cousin being murdered, the stories practically stopped. The media and the public largely moved on, focusing their attention on the next kid catching bodies and perpetuating an image they could sell for clicks. There's always the next thing to be afraid of. Keef's music kept coming, but it seemed to only have impact within his cult-like fan base. In mainstream hip-hop he practically disappeared. No big singles cracked radio like "Don’t Like," no big features other than “Hold My Liquor” on Yeezus, even though songs like "Faneto" became a baby sensation it felt like his moment on the big stage was up. At least I thought so.
A few days ago, Chief Keef reclaimed mass attention from the blogosphere for two unexpected reasons. The first was a song he released, “Ain’t Missing You,” that was unlike anything he has ever done before. The production didn't have the grime of his drill classics, it’s actually more of a lighthearted pop sound, sampling John Waite, a country star from the '80s. There’s an actual female crooning on the hook, Jenn Em – a first in Sosa music history. The biggest surprise is Keef, his verses are refined, sincere, and the most clear they have ever been despite being drowned in Auto-Tune. It’s a tribute song for his fallen cousin, Big Glo. He reminisces on their relationship, still mourning, very vulnerable, but in high spirits. Jenn and Keef are like a 2015 Puffy and Faith. The video is also well done, there isn’t any shirtless homies swinging their dreads or guns being drawn, it’s montage of studio footage, b-roll, and clips of Glo. The music released prior is common Chief, dirty, grimy production, and dripping with gun talk and rubber band banks. Andy Milonakis is featured on one, a collaboration that defies all logic, but so does Denzel Washington visiting Keef in rehab.
The second surprise is that the song was released through FilmOn, a production company Keef recently signed with just a few months ago. “Ain’t Missing You” is the first, official release since their union. Fader revealed that FilmOn’s founder, Alki David, is a billionaire through inheritance. The 48-year-old is a Greek heir to a Coca Cola bottling facility that has generated $1.7 billion dollars, much of which David has reinvested into many different passions throughout the last 10 years. He’s a looney visionary, the kind of man that offered a million dollars to anyone ballsy enough to streak in front of President Obama and Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel. He also attempted to create a production company strictly for hologram concerts. The goal was to tour a posthumous Amy Winehouse, the world isn’t ready. We may never be ready. If you want to understand the severity of his insanity look up "Lord Of The Freaks," it is something you have to see, words could never capture the essence of what’s awaiting you. Alki is Ed Wuncler III and Chief Keef is his Riley Freeman, two kindred spritis from opposite worlds.
This unorthodox merger inspired me to look closely into Chief Keef's life, something I frankly hadn't done in years. What I found was a kid, or rather a burgeoning man, that seemed to be truly enjoying his life. If you go to his Instagram page there aren't any girls loving Sosa, but you might come across his adorable daughter and son. You’ll see plenty of guns, they're paintball guns. It seems paintball is one of his many new hobbies. The others seem to be collecting drone planes that he flies over his mansion, swimming in his pool and RideAGhost boards. There’s art on his walls, a passion he picked up during his second rehabilitation. It didn’t receive massive coverage but he collaborated with Seventh Letter Gallery for an art show, none of his own paintings, but various works of art that used him as the subject. Speaking of rehab, seems like he’s still struggling with the lean demon but hopefully in smaller doses. He does have the lean belly, an attribute that I’m still awaiting to see in Future. He seems to be living the more carefree life of the teenager he never got to be before. His debut album title has never felt more fitting. Moving from Chicago to California seemed to be the blessing that changed his situation for the better. With all his beefs settled and any enemies left from his old neighborhood miles away, I wonder if he feels a sense of peace. He calls his new home quiet, must be nice.
The 4th of July photos caught my attention. I think about Chance’s verse on “Paranoia," wonder about his thoughts on fireworks. A few years ago, who knows how Sosa celebrated this holiday. It wasn’t poolside riding a board in a cloud artificial smoke. He escaped with his children and was able to take a few friends with him. His staggeringly unlike transition from a Chicago house arrest bedroom filled with guns to a stable and wealthy musician is seemingly well underway, which isn't being acknowledged with a fraction of the same interest that surrounded his arrests. Where's the Gawker writer and his follow up article? Why hasn’t Pitchfork took him to the play paintball? Why hasn’t Noisey documented this success story? Where’s TMZ? Where’s L.A Weekly? They loved documenting his eviction from the previous residence, couldn't wait to take tours of Atlanta's traps.
They're not gone, only waiting for him slip up again. If he does then the cameras will come, then the thought pieces, Fox News will have more ammo for their rants about violence and hip-hop. George Zimmerman doesn’t listen to Chief Keef. Darren Wilson doesn’t listen to Chief Keef. What’s on Dylann Roof’s iPod? All these horrible, violent murders and killings that have no attachment to music, but a Chicago kid telling his story is a sign of the apocylypse, living proof of a world most would rather pretend doesn't exist, or acknowledge only as entertainment. They would hate for the kids to see Sosa in any other light than menacing. A raging tiger will drive more traffic than a purring kitten. I’m not a fan of Chief Keef the rapper but I’m a fan of Keith Cozart the man and father. He deserves a second chance at life. Hopefully it’s a full life, one where trouble strays from his path.
I just want to see more happy endings. We don’t get them enough.
Epilogue, Yoh's Note to Nathan: It’s 5:36 AM, I just finished writing this and I hate everything. I don’t know if that mansion Keef is so proud of is to keep us out or keep him in. Either way, it’s almost like a luxury prison. When you reach the pinnacle of success you have to sustain it. The credits don’t roll until you die, there’s always a chance you’ll fuck it all up. There’s no end goals, no finish lines, just emotional moments until the next emotional moment. I hope to never become the writers that only see pageviews, not people, blind to kids that never had a chance. Cain didn’t need to die in Menace II Society. He really didn’t man. I’m going to bed. Let me know your notes and I'll work on this more in the morning. Squad.
[By Yoh, aka Love Yohsa, aka @Yoh31]