“A Nietzchean ‘aphorism’ is not a mere fragment, a morsel of thought: it is a proposition which only makes sense in relation to the state of forces that it expresses, and which changes sense, which must change sense, according to the new forces which it is ‘capable’ (has the power) of attracting.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy
“Y’all got questions/ I can’t answer.”
– Chief Keef, “Fix That”
To still be a devoted Chief Keef listener in 2017 is to be an ecologist. That is, it is to search for meaning within something that has zero interest in you and the meaning you seek. Said meaning emanates as a force rather than as a story: I’m still here, inscrutably thriving. This audience-facing ambivalence is precisely what allows Keef’s work to slice through the over-narrated and perception-managed ether of the present moment. Sosa’s early work in part made possible the realization of hip-hop’s contemporary dominance, yet his response to this insider status has been to become an insider-as-outsider, disavowing industry-oriented success in favor of attenuating every aspect of his work to an intuited vibe, expressed through the cultivation of a self-contained aesthetic universe.
“Sosa what’s your goals? I don’t really know.”
This blunted disposition has pervaded every aspect of Sosa’s work throughout the last three or so years: distribution method, vocal delivery, production, visual brand. The cartoonish, darkly humorous visual contributions of artists like Bill Da Butcher and Casimir Spaulding have spurred Keef’s vision to evolve beyond early Glory Boyz Entertainment and 300 imagery to the more disturbed GloGang look, which fashions a profane iconography from the various symbols and characters in the Sosa universe. Marred by the loss of two GBE associates over the past few years – one a cousin and another a best friend and day-one – this religious symbology has taken on a eulogistic quality.
“The life I’m livin’ rough/ I’m tryin’ not to cuss.”
Keef’s musical output has followed a similar fall from grace, concurrent with a liberation. Following the ascendant jolt of 2012’s hit-heavy Finally Rich (Interscope), Keef has refused to follow all industry-prescribed guidelines for role-playing, brand-building, and hype-cycle timing. His unilateral aversion to compromised vision has lost him a major label contract and countless opportunities to cash in, but it has resulted in something far rarer and more valuable: an artist capable of both developing an aesthetic in 360 degrees with total independence and circumventing the aesthetic conformity of whatever cultural moment he occupies. Leaked tracks and scrapped mixtapes with botched mastering set an intention approaching process art. Lyrical non-sequiturs and abusive autotune experimentation engender a poetics unto itself that calibrates the listener to its own internal symbolic structure rather and rebukes a priori modalities of listening. To be a Chief Keef listener is to learn a style of understanding and to see a new world in the process. It is also a refusal of quotidian values, a hovering between life and death.
“When I look in the mirror/ Sometimes I see a demon.”
This suspended mode of production has produced works clumsy, “unlistenable,” and downright ignored, but it has also yielded some of the most singular art of the decade. Most of my favorite Chief Keef tracks, the Xan-cauterized, terminally zoned-out fare circa 2014, are loosies that I don’t know if he even intended to release. Back From The Dead 2 and Sorry 4 The Weight are both self-contained masterworks in their own right despite reaching a limited audience. The sprawling, self-taught anti-production of the former approached a bizarre 21st-century gothic, uncompromisingly severe in its bleak treatment of FL Studio cellos and cavernous white spaces between bars, over which Keef perfected the snarling mid-career delivery most popularly witnessed on surprise 2014 sleeper hit “Faneto.”
“I remember when the big homies used to shit on me.”
By comparison, Two Zero One Seven is nowhere near as austere or single minded in vision, relatively soft-spoken in delivery even when channeling anger or pomp. Half self-produced, while the other half falls to Lex Luger (whose currency in 2017 is inscribed by absence, his continued influence looming larger than his actual presence on the scene), the tape’s unhinged, unmastered atmosphere congeals via Sosa’s opaque, deadpan eulogies to ascent, struggle, loss, and empty celebration. While he claims to be charged up, the deflated quality of his voice and repeated impenetrably dark lyrical twists betray that he is drained, morose, and disaffected, even during the relatively melodic and bouncy numbers.
“You can put me in detox/ Don’t think I’m staying sober/ Jump in front of this metro train and get ran over.”
Keef-produced standout “Knock It Off,” intractably insular in mood and awash with narcotic vocal affect, relates to outsiders by a bleak, suspicious, and embittered proximity: “I just po’d up four threes/ You’re running out of lean/ I’m tryna be on Forbes/ I’m running out of dreams.” Drug abuse has been a theme from the beginning with Keef, and Two Zero One Seven is no exception. Lean and dope permeate the record not as transcendent pinnacles or perceptive agents, but as a cauterizing agent, taken in and become lifeblood itself. There is a sense of protracted death, an eerie finality, hanging over the proceedings: “I’m sipping lean/ Till it put me to sleep/ Counting all this money killed the thief in me.” Keef’s dayglo burlesques are in full force, though, and the tape is nothing if not consistent with the Sosa universe.
“Swear I be feelin’ like Bankroll.”
This universe, borne from irreverent humor as much as it is from loss and struggle, takes shape through a strange mix of non-sequitur, pun, and aphorism. Tadoe is the sole inner-circle associate, his verses even more world-averse than Sosa’s; with the exception of an inexplicable mid-album duet with newish GloGang addiction Kash, all others are banished. Keef’s productions here are not the elephantine grotesques of Back From The Dead 2; they bounce with Zaytovian baroques reminiscent of ChopsquadDJ’s contributions on Sorry 4 The Weight or else plod and pummel in the style of the aforementioned Luger. Sometimes he is nimble, nesting meters within meters as on “Reefah;” elsewhere he is moribund and drawling, more drained than ever, snarl siphoned away from recurrent tides of loss and anaesthesia. He is altogether uninterested in sex and human connection, chemicals and capital in their stead. The tape’s unmastered thinness gives way during its second half to a withered state of immateriality, concluding in the minute-and-a-half-long Leekeleek-produced “Anything Gets You Paid,” whose melancholy sparkle recalls Almighty So’s “Baby What’s Wrong With You” in a classic example of how Keef’s compositional arrogance pays off. No chorus, uncompromised flow-switching cultivating a vibe of tectonic flux, avowed anti-romanticism betraying romantic preoccupation, all cultivating in a beat drop yielding an emotionless payoff suspended within a frieze of simulated, ironic half-bitter sentimentality:
I’m leavin’ girl, you awful to me
Don’t want me to see my shawty
That’s that shit my mama taught me
For all the shit my mama bought me
I owe her a million times forty
A fittingly recursive and inscrutable dissolution to the record, it is impossible to tell whether Keef says “a million times forty” or “a million times for it,” his words swallowed by a premature final downbeat. Here we arrive, suspended again within the potentially infinite wait for (the alleged) release of Sosa’s long-awaited, nearly mythical Thot Breaker project this Valentine’s Day, which might contain hits or indigestible experimentation, revelations or throwaways. Or we might never hear it at all.