Drill music has proven to be one of the most controversial subgenres of hip-hop to emerge in the 2010s. Largely developed by artists such as Fredo Santana, Waka Flocka Flame, and Lil Reese, there’s an astute level of nihilism that goes into each aspect of every song, from the scratchy production to the maniacally deadpan vocal delivery. Drill is widely misunderstood, either misinterpreted by the media as condoning violence within communities or as being some sort of lackluster listening experience that hastily forces its own creation with little to no lyrical merit from the scene’s artists. These are myths and bleed into the misconception that hip-hop must be outwardly political to be deemed worthy of a mainstream audience. To this assumption, I call bullshit. Drill music, Bay Area whisper rap, and every subgenre in-between are arguably more political to a fault. In Thank You For Using GTL, Drakeo the Ruler explains the difference between art and fiction – crunchy jailhouse recordings rebuke the US judicial system’s belief that rap lyrics are a depiction of real life. In an era where prosecutors can use artists’ songs and videos against them in court, these artists showcase the brutal reality of street life. From O Block to South Sacramento, Chief Keef, Bris, and their cohorts give first-hand insight into politically-oppressed lifestyles; discussions about gun violence and police harassment illustrate a different point of view in the Black experience than that of the mainstream. J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and many of the artists who receive mainstream, critical acclaim provide precise articulations of how radical change is needed in society – including statements that can be consumed and understood and propelled by scholars and laypeople alike. I argue that Chief Keef is just as political, moving past the use of metaphors and explanations of political policy because his own experience is a sufficient indictment of the failures of the US political system.
One of the youngest, most successful hip-hop artists to emerge (perhaps ever), Chief Keef has made a name both for himself and the entire Chicago drill scene. Keith Farrelle Cozart released his debut project, Finally Rich, on Interscope Records at the age of 17. Classic songs came out of the project, from “Love Sosa” to “I Don’t Like” to “Hate Bein’ Sober” – songs that will be played at any party in any city in the United States. With Lil Reese as a leading producer, drill music became an international phenomenon. The production features 60-70 BPM instrumentals, overbearing wobble basslines, and a texture that feels raw and unedited, but with an attention to detail that’s almost transcendent. Emulated in Brooklyn, New York and the UK with Grime music, the use of a deafening bass paired with deep-cut vocals has reached viral status with the success of Pop Smoke and Skepta. In Chicago specifically, Almighty So’s “Baby Whats Wrong With You” is the perfect example of drill’s beauty. The synthesizer doesn’t feel mastered; the mastering isn’t crisp and it lacks the clarity of the diamonds that it forces you to envision. Even as his vocals are drowned-out by the shimmering beat, there’s a certain energy to Chief Keef that makes you gravitate to each one of his words, from “I ain’t gonna smoke with you” to “Can you get me stoned,” the simplistic lyrics are consumable, replacing complex syntax with one-liners that you can sing along to. Even as a producer, Chief Keef is focused on setting the ambience; he’s “more concerned with vibe than meaning.” Chief Keef is a singular, unmatched talent because of his versatility as an artist.
Seamlessly blending Chicago Drill with influence from Michigan’s thriving hip-hop scene, 4NEM cements Chief Keef Sosa as an innovator, first and foremost, with an ear for production that thrives within its maximalism. At times sonically abrasive, at times a deep introspection into Chief Keef’s bouts with the pitfalls of fame, his latest project truly feels like an album. Following a flurry of five releases in 2019, and only a single project in 2020, Sosa had been surprisingly quiet in 2021. In the past two years, he released “Bands in the Basement,” along with a few other one-offs, delving into 03 Greedo’s signature brand of creep music, highlighting his flexibility as an artist – seamlessly maneuvering through regional subgenres of hip-hop with ease. Again, the enigmatic simplicity of Chief Keef allows him to flourish when collaborating with any and everyone. He easily spills lines about “melting your head with ice cream” over semi-somber beats (even though a somber Glo Gang beat just means that the bells are quieter and the horns are less bombastic), but unlike his other mixtapes and albums, 4NEM feels like a homecoming; reassurance that Chief Keef can still produce ageless content that work as more than just quintessential drill classics. With the 29th release in his prolific discography, Chief Keef blasts lead synthesizers, unleashes his witty personality in full-form, and has made an album that’s dedicated to Chicago’s hip-hop renaissance.
Beginning with “Bitch Where,” the album’s first song acts as a fanfare. His first words, introducing a Chief Keef that’s been more silent than usual, he proudly announces “Made it out the Chi’/If I didn’t, wouldn’t see today.” It’s a proclamation of freedom; a royal decree from a Chi-Town legend that dispels his growth as both a person and an artist. Leaving Chicago has allowed him to immerse himself in new waters, breeding experimentation that had been missing from his more recent projects. Ending with a voicemail from Margaret Carter, Chief Keef’s grandmother, endearingly tells him, “Granny just loves how you move and doing yourself, and doing yourself well.” He’s sentimental, including the sound bite because clearly proud of himself for moving past the horrors that he would experience daily in Chicago.
As the album progresses, so do Sosa’s stories of pride and trepidation. Tracks like “Say I Ain’t Pick Yo Weak Ass Up” exemplify Chief Keef reigniting his style with fervor, sounding like the climax to a B-list horror movie – cacophony that has been struck with as much chaos as Sosa can adlib. Interweaving creep music into the song, a quavering soundscape plays against blaring sirens as Chief Keef screams about the “Glock 30 in [his] bed.” The album exists as a showcase of Chief Keef’s range, so the next song jumps to interpolate and sample Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob On My Knob.” As new-age artists like POLO PERKS <3 <3 <3 and Moh Baretta are flipping classic songs like “Devil In a New Dress” and “Mr. Brightside,” Chief Keef commandeers the same song that Future, Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar and James Blake reworked in the 2018 Grammy-winner, “King’s Dead.” The song is an exhibition of Chief Keef’s fearlessness, going up against any artist in the industry because he has faith that no one can do it quite like him. The rest of the project plays the same way, with Chief Keef taking chance after chance. “Yes Sir” playfully discerns the different enunciations of “Yessir” and “I Don’t Think They Love Me” illuminates a tenderness within Sosa – a fear that fame has marked his persona so that none of his relationships will ever be strictly about love. 4NEM is an exploration of drill music’s future, and if this album is any indicator, it seems as if Chief Keef will remain the leader of the new regime.