Wrestling with the moral dilemma of Chief Keef's art
If, in the wake of the horrific happenings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, a soulless, amoral and blatantly sensationalist musician released an album glorifying the deranged mindset, unspeakably selfish and evil worldview and embrace of indiscriminate violence that led to the mass killing of 26 innocents, the condemnation of that dubious art would be instant and universal, regardless of whatever imagined merits it might have beyond its abhorrent subject matter.
On Tuesday, a 17-year-old South Side rapper born Keith Cozart but better known as Chief Keef will release Finally Rich, his major-label debut for the morally vacuous Interscope Records. The album is a bleak, nihilistic celebration of street violence, gang culture, drug use, disrespect for women and the worship of the almighty dollar above all humanistic conscience, arriving as Chicago nears the end of a year that’s seen an epidemic of violent killings in African-American neighborhoods every bit as tragic—and preventable, if the political will was present—as those in Newtown, Conn.
This is not to equate the words of Chief Keef with the actions of the Newtown assassin. Yet neither can the lyrical messages of the Englewood rapper be dismissed as mere fantasy or “street reportage.” He clearly is on the same path of confusing the gangsta pose with violent gangster realities that infamously led to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls before him, and which had become a pathetic, played-out cliché in hip-hop even at that time, a decade and a half ago.
A police investigation into Cozart’s possible connections to the shooting death of fellow rapper and Englewood resident Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman is ongoing. And today, Cozart will appear in Cook County Juvenile Court, where a judge will decide whether he will return to jail for violating the terms of his probation for a conviction on the unlawful use of a weapon—he pointed a gun at police—by appearing at a gun range for an interview with the Pitchfork webzine last June.
Like many media outlets, the formerly Chicago-based Pitchfork is nearly as complicit in the rise of Chief Keef as Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records or the long roster of rap stars and others who’ve endorsed the young rapper because of his “authenticity.” (The album features guest appearances from 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, fellow Chicagoan Kanye West has remixed Cozart in the past and the track “Love Sosa” features in the videogame Grand Theft Auto 5.) The hipster Web site has been ordered by the court to turn over the unedited tapes of that gun-range interview, which it posted but quickly removed after Coleman’s shooting, and it’s fighting that demand by citing its protections under the First Amendment and the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.
On Friday, Pitchfork posted a review of Finally Rich as laudable art, giving the album a brag-worthy rating of 7.5 on its vaunted 10-point scale. The logic of critic Jayson Greene is hard to follow: The album “proves that Keef has a lot of potential—much more than his detractors might have hoped,” he writes. Yet his descriptions of the artist’s musical merits hardly are glowing—“Keef mutters through a thick wall of processing,” he notes of the rapping—and he’s even less enthusiastic about the message. “Chief Keef isn’t a lyricist. At all. His lyrics on Finally Rich are almost entirely composed of rudimentary gangsta-rap boilerplate, which he treats more like a graffiti bomber than a rapper, tagging his beats with slogans meant for maximum impact and minimal scrutiny.”
This critic’s take: Chief Keef is a thick-tongued, mush-mouthed rapper with little grace and stilted flow who stumbles through generic, unimaginative, frequently plodding and numbingly repetitive backing tracks bragging with little imagination and forced conviction about his bad-ass self and utter disregard for anyone else in the universe. The cynicism is bottomless; in his view, one either exploits his own community or is one of the exploited. “I’m laughing to the bank/Ha, ha, ha/I’m laughing at the slave’s life/Ha, ha, ha,” he raps. His attempts to shock with exaggerated tales of senseless violence were old decades ago, as noted earlier, already transparent by the time N.W.A lost Ice Cube and its political edge and gave us nothing but empty gangsta porn on Niggaz4Life in 1991. Forced to rate it on this blog’s own scale, it ranks at exactly zero stars.
Of course, saying that carries the risk of being dismissed as clueless and chronically out of touch—a “rockist” (code for “racist”) who doesn’t understand hip-hop culture unless it’s of the positive (code for “boring,” “feel-good” and “phony”) variety that, as noted here before, previously characterized much of the rap music that brought the national spotlight to Chicago in the past, courtesy of artists such as Kanye, Common, Rhymefest, Lupe Fiasco and Kid Sister.
To be clear, as a First Amendment absolutist, I believe Keef unquestionably has the right to say anything and everything he chooses to say. Stifling that speech to any degree is despicable, whether it’s the court going after Pitchfork’s tapes, or police apparently selectively targeting the street teams who’ve plastered the South Side with promotional posters trumpeting the release of Finally Rich.
Yet, given that, critics need more urgently than ever to consider not only the strictly musical merits of a controversial artist’s work, but the moral ramifications of the worldview it champions or espouses. To do anything less indicates the real failure to understand and respect hip-hop, which remains an art form where the words absolutely matter… and arguably now more than ever, as the Chicago body count piles up.
If, in the wake of the horrific happenings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an artist glorified that violence, condemnation would be universal. And so it should be for Finally Rich.