Two years and change after 2012's Chicago street-rap boom, it's hard to think of a more dramatic fall from almost-mainstream grace than that of Chief Keef. Now 19, he remains the poster-boy for drill (or what's left of it), but judging by the headlines of the past couple years, you'd hardly know he still makes music at all. Interscope, who dropped him from their roster last week, certainly won't be putting any out. Keef's no-fucks-given approach to celebrity hasn't helped, but that's always been the case; what's changed has been his approach to hit-making, or rather, his straight up rejection of it.
Since Finally Rich, his divisive 2012 major label debut, Keef hasn't released anything resembling the directness of his breakthroughs; even last year's super-catchy "Macaroni Time" was just a little too weird to catch on. Instead, he's embraced abstraction. If nothing else, critically panned 2013 mixtapes like Bang 2 and Almighty So (the latter of which deserves a second chance) tested the limits of what Keef could get away with, eschewing any sort of discernible meaning for pointed unintelligibility. It often felt like compensation for how uncomfortable he felt in the spotlight. Those tapes begged the question: what does it mean to be a rapper when you no longer have a real use for language?
It's fitting, then, that Keef's latest obsession allows him to express himself in a completely different way. Over the past month or so, he's been releasing a steady stream of his own productions over Youtube and Instagram, and the recently revealed tracklist for Back From the Dead 2 (due out on Halloween) promises Keef's own productions on all but four of its 20 tracks. Though there are still some kinks to be worked out (or not!), like a tendency for off-time snares, he seems to have a knack for beats—after all, Young Chop's been training him since at least last December. Producing makes sense for him: Keef's always been more concerned with vibe than meaning, and production is his most efficient tool to create a mood without getting bogged down by pesky syntax. And though it's unlikely that any of his self-produced songs will resonate on the scale of his biggest hits, they're some of the most unusual sounds of an already unusual career. At times, his new stuff evokes the Based God, other times, the Fade To Mind oeuvre. While we wait for Back From the Dead 2 (and given the fate of still-unreleased Bang 3, I wouldn't hold your breath), we've assembled the seven most compelling examples of Keef's production work so far.
The first self-produced track Keef shared happens to be his most accomplished; where some of his beats feel more like sketches, "Wait" arrived fully formed and totally cinematic. The lyric I ain't done yet, I ain't done having fun yet! feels as much like self-affirmation as it does giddy reproval of those who've written him off. Sure enough, then there's the goofy, chipmunked "SPEEDED" version—maybe not a keeper, but a fun artifact of Keef's studio experiments.
"Dear" may be Keef's most twee work yet, with a twinkling intro fit for lulling Kay Kay to sleep. But what's most fascinating here is the similarity in palette to Lil B's polarizing, new-agey Rain in England—in particular, the aching restraint of album intro "Birth to Life."
A sequel of sorts to proto-bop mixtape cut "Save That Shit," "Cashin" is a vision of drill within the universe of Fade To Mind, like something Fatima Al Qadiri might make while blackout drunk. Best is the 30-second outro, disintegrating into the ether as Keef channels the world's saddest anthropomorphic money-counting machine: BeeEEEeeEEp!
Even at their simplest, early drill productions of guys like Young Chop and DJ Kenn favored unrelenting repetition over empty space. Keef's production style seems to be more concerned with a cycle of ebb and flow: on "Smack DVD," he often lets the beat drop out entirely for added drama. (And if there's a catch-all descriptor for Keef's productions as a whole, it's dramatic: I imagine this instrumental soundtracking the darker moments of a Beauty & The Beast re-boot.)
The signifiers of drill as we knew it in its 2012 prime are here, sort of—the dead-eyed lurch, twitchy snares, creeping sense of impending doom—but abstracted and tranquilized. "Where's Waldo" is more Gregorian chant than Spartan battle cry, with neurotic percussion that sounds like it's trying to scratch its own itch.
Another one that wouldn't be out of place on an experimental dance music compilation, though it needs a good deal of mastering, "Money" has lots of cavernous space and the sort of glum romanticism that could only come from Keef.
Beats 20thousand shop wit me!
A video posted by AlmightySo (@chieffkeeffsossa) on
At only a handful of seconds, this Instagram snippet features Keef's most intriguing production yet: ambient and a little Baroque, heavy on emotional piano and flute sounds, like a dream collaboration between Young Chop and Ricky Eat Acid. Fingers crossed that this one finds its way onto Back From the Dead 2.