The elevator pitch on Chief Keef is this: he's sixteen, from Chicago, and is currently on house arrest at his grandma's house. He made a song called "I Don't Like," that became one of Kanye West's favorite songs. He doesn't wear a shirt most of the time and seems really mad about everything. Keef, who will make his New York City debut on Monday at SOB's, also says the word "bang" a lot.
Here's where it gets interesting, though. The success of "I Don't Like," which eventually was remixed by Kanye himself, earned Keef a record deal with Interscope, as well as a publishing deal with Dr. Dre.
This probably means that Chief Keef just went from not really having much money to have a ton of money, and we're really happy for him on that end. However, the debate swirling around Keef speaks to whether or not he should have signed a deal at all, whether he's ready to enter the national spotlight.
A record deal changes a lot for a rapper, especially if you're coming from poverty as Keef is. His music is not necessarily the type that screams "record deal." It's aggressive and can sound muddy, taking the stop-start mechanocrunk of guys like Waka Flocka and Gunplay and taking it even further into left field.
It's doubtful that in its current form his music would work on conventional rap radio -- Kanye's remix is a hit, but it ditched the tinniness of the original beat in favor of something more widescreen. Keef's magnetism is weird, tenuous even.
He just sort of mumbles stuff over caustic mayhem, and more times than not it works. Critics have called it "anti-charisma," and I think that's accurate -- Keef is not the type to dazzle you lyrically and he doesn't overpower you with his voice. Many say that Waka Flocka raps as if he's speaking in caps lock. Keef, meanwhile, raps in italics.
This is what worries many about Keef. He's immensely popular, but it's hard to explain why. He's still building his momentum, finding his voice and attempting to understand the world -- imagine listening to Jay-Z or Tupac at sixteen; they would have sounded nothing like the distinct voices they evolved into. He's built up a cruise ship's worth of momentum, and many argue that his deal might end up, in a roundabout way, causing that momentum to stop. It's easy to understand why Chief Keef was eager to sign with a label. He probably feels like he's ready, for one, and he can probably afford to buy his grandmother a bigger house for him to be under house arrest in. There are the legal troubles, and now that he has money he probably has a better lawyer who can get him out of his grandmother's house quicker (through some sort of loophole, he can get permission to leave his grandma's place to perform live, which explains his New York appearance).
When Chief Keef gives interviews he seems cagey, like how many teenagers act around authority figures. With money in the music industry comes a sort of power, the type of power that allows you to tell people you don't want to talk to them. This is the type of stuff that Chief Keef likes.
The armchair quarterbacking of Keef looks past two key things. One, his music works, even if we don't necessarily understand why. Two, he has not yet played in New York. The city is a proving ground for new rappers, and basically the entire rap press (including me) will be at Keef's show in order to see if, live, he's "got it" or not.
If he does, then the folks at Interscope (and Kanye West) will look a lot smarter than people are saying they are. If he doesn't, then it's not the end of the world -- he still has time to develop, but he will have momentarily proven the critics correct.
NYC rap shows are also a good guage of an artist's actual popularity. Music writing tends to be a a bubble, where an artist who the vast majority of the universe is unfamiliar with will be followed with the same fervor with which TMZ dogs Snookie. Getting Keef out of our iPods and in front of our eyes grants him automatic context. Whether the performance is a triumph or a bomb might be less important than if anybody shows up.