Chief Keef's Finally Rich is good, bad, and mostly OK

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Today marks the arrival of Finally Rich, the Interscope debut from infamous local rapper Keith Cozart, aka Chief Keef. Cozart's rapid ascension nearly fits the contours of the calendar; he was an unknown outside of the south side until January 2 when a video of a young fan jubilantly screaming upon hearing the news that Cozart had been released from jail hit WorldStarHipHop and went viral; on March 12 Cozart released his second mixtape, Back from the Dead, and was the focus of an in-depth Gawker profile that launched a major-label bidding war; in June he signed a cushy deal with Interscope that gave him his own imprint, a movie deal, and his own line of Beats By Dre headphones; and now Finally Rich comes out several days before the prophesied Mayan apocalypse, and chances are some of Cozart's critics think the timing fits such an occasion.

Cozart's moody, apocalyptic, and violent music helped him garner an enthusiastic fan base and a bad reputation, which he's brazenly—even recklessly—embraced even in the face of tragedy; his (alleged) Twitter response to the murder of aspiring south-side rapper Joseph "Lil JoJo" Coleman sparked an international controversy. To say Cozart is polarizing feels like an understatement; to some he offers a keen reflection on the desperation that's crippled large portions of the city, to others he's the amoral symbol for all that's wrong with Chicago. Both perspectives foist weighty concepts—street-rap bard and evil villain—on a 17-year-old partially because of how effective he is at maintaining his pop persona.

Given Cozart's omnipresence, and considering he's become a media fixture, you don't necessarily need to have heard a single second of his music to have an idea of what it sounds like, and chances are plenty of folks already judged Finally Rich prior to today; unless Cozart decided to bust out a banjo or cover John Cage for an entire album, anything he'd release would do little to convince those who have already formed an opinion about the MC to change their thoughts about his work. With that in mind Finally Rich meets the expectation that Cozart continue to do Keef as he has done before, but fortunately he messes around with his formula just enough to show something resembling evolution.

Finally Rich often feels like much of what we've already heard from Cozart, and that's sometimes the case; "I Don't Like" has been rattling trunks since March (and Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music remix since May), a video for "Ballin'" popped up on YouTube in September (it has subsequently been removed), and "Love Sosa" has accumulated more than 20 million views since October. "Love Sosa" proved to be a good hint at the smoother new Cozart went with on Finally Rich; the overwhelming bass, charged synth blasts, and rattlesnake percussion of old have been toned down, making some of the rapper's new material sound lighter, looser, and, at times, unencumbered by the intense and nauseating feelings of despair and nihilism that marked Cozart's earlier material.

At times the smoother sound on Finally Rich sounds like Cozart's music has just been given a makeover—though nothing as outrageous as the paint job of that aforementioned G.O.O.D. Music remix—considering Cozart doesn't venture too far out of his comfort zone with his lyrics, and when he does it sometimes feels awkward; Cozart's shout out to his jeweler on "Hallelujah" is obviously a nod to his new lifestyle, but it feels like a betrayal to the sense of struggle that's so important to his previous work.

Cozart is not in the same place he was a year ago—his latest version of "3Hunna" boasts a contribution from Rick Ross, one of a handful of big-name features that's an obvious sign of the MC's success. Part of the conflict behind Finally Rich revolves around Cozart's ability to adapt his blunt rhyme schemes to his new reality, and it doesn't always work; with a hook that's a robotic chortle, "Laughin' to the Bank" is basic album filler, even if said laughter makes for an amusing meme.

At times Cozart appears to be building toward a better future (he name-drops his daughter, Kay Kay, who is also the namesake of the album's sixth track) but Finally Rich feels weighed down by his past. The album opens with a short rant that reminds listeners of the legend of Chief Keef and mentions, among other things, his long-standing probation (he's due in court next month to determine whether he violated said probation); it closes with what sounds like the audio from the WorldStarHipHop video of that young, energetic Chief Keef fan that clued the world into the rapper nearly one year ago. Along with the songs that have been widely circulated prior to the release of Cozart's studio debut, these moments inform a powerful idea of an artist that's easy to love or hate—unfortunately not all of Finally Rich is quite as strong.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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