Ever since Chief Keef stepped away from the too-hot-to-sustain spotlight in Chicago, relocated to L.A., parted ways with Interscope, and began producing, his music's taken on a weirder, almost DIY edge. Self-produced tracks began leaking out in 2014, and in stark contrast to the hard-nosed, scene-defining drill that kicked off his career, they meandered, experimented, and in many cases, confused listeners. "Dear," released one month before Keef's big coming-out party as a producer, Back From The Dead 2, is the first one I remember startling me. Decidedly lo-fi and unpolished, the track was built around a spaghetti western-style whistle that reminded me of Organized Noize's work on Big Boi's "The Train, Pt. 2" and had Keef sounding looser and funnier than usual, dropping zingers like, "I ain't got no jets so I ride first class/I swear my fuckin' seat turn into a bed/The pilot saw my eyes and said they awfully red/I told him 'I get high as you, I'm the man.'" Since then, Keef's balanced his weirder self-produced stuff with collaborations with more by-the-book producers like Chopsquad, DP Beats, Zaytoven, and now, on the newly-released Two Zero One Seven, trap architect Lex Luger

The most instantly noticeable trait of this mixtape is that it, unlike the other full-length Keef projects that have included his production, doesn't appear to have been mastered, as tracks vary in volume and the Datpiff tags are often excruciatingly loud. For some, this may be an insurmountable turn-off, but if you can get past it (or find one of the guerrilla masters floating around online forums), the otherwise stellar tape provides Keef fans with what they've sorely been missing for over a year, as well as progresses the rapper's increasingly difficult-to-pin-down sound. 

Things kick off with the most standard-sounding, immediately satisfying Keef track on the tape, "So Tree." Luger, who provides four beats towards the front end of the project, comes through with a slice of intergalactic trap that could feasibly have been put out at any point over the last seven years of his career, and Keef, staying lighter on his feet than ever, dips and ducks his way through a couple of his most thrilling verses in recent memory. "Slick I'm tryna get 20 bathrooms," he begins one, "Need a beach house down in Cancún/I got a view of the stars and the moon/All this marble on the ground, grab a broom." Somewhere along the way of one of the oddest rap trajectories of the past five years, Keef's morphed from a melodically gifted goon rapper to a detail-oriented connoisseur of of the high life in the long-standing tradition of Biggie's "50-inch screen, money green leather sofa" or Rick Ross' "Cherry red chariot, excess is just my character/All black tux, n*gga shoes lavender." Make no mistake, Keef's uncanny ability to pull undeniable melodies out of thin air is still there-- in verses as well as hooks-- but it now seems like he's just as devoted to manipulating language as he is to manipulating the pitch of his voice. 

This, in addition to his persistently creative beat work, leads to a unconventional tape that succeeds when Keef's at his most uninhibited. Look at "Knock It Off," which is built around what sounds like a punker, less polished London On Da Track piano line, and has Keef in an audacious enough mood to somehow rhyme "bags of money" with "Led Zeppelin." No one should be able to pull this off, but with Keef's experience, he's able to make gold out of choices that could be deemed amateurish in others' hands. His beats are often cartoonish and unpolished, and he never seems too practiced on the mic, but the spark of freestyled creativity is there, as are the flows-- from a purely flow-oriented perspective, Two Zero One Seven might be Keef's best work yet. He builds on cadences that at first seem monotonous, but then explode by the end of verses to hit you with pristine barbs like "Clip longer than a fucking selfie stick/Be in your grass yeah I'm still on that creep shit/I'll hop out in your hood and take a pee, bitch." 

At 17 tracks and an hour of runtime, Two Zero One Seven definitely contains some filler, which by the end of the tape somewhat detracts from the flash-in-the-pan brilliance of its most boggling tracks. Not every idea is earth-shattering, not every Luger beat sounds like it should have survived past 2012, not every hook glides with the Criso'd ease of Keef's best. "Check" in particular, though it seems tailor-made as a "single," is a bit of a snoozer from its "Clique"-recalling hook to the crow squawk sound effect that was cool on Bobby Shmurda's "Hot N*gga" beat, but played-out by the time Drake and Future's "Jumpman" dropped. "Running Late" takes a similar approach to Sorry 4 The Weight's alphabet extravaganza "Himalayas," except with numbers this time, and similarly fails to come across as anything more than a novelty. Sometimes, the hyper-blunted stuff Keef throws at the wall just doesn't stick, but I'd take a few failed experiments on a 17-track tape over ten by-the-book bangers any day.

Keef's still in a weird place career-wise, and may be for the foreseeable future, barring someone offering him a fairly autonomous record deal (at this point it's pretty clear he's more content fucking around on Pro Tools and putting out music whenever he feels like it than he would be adding to his millions with a tightly-controlled major contract). His current position of freedom, maturity, and sheer oddballery is best emphasized by a moment on the excellent "Hit The Lotto" when he delivers the tape's best smart-dumb punchline ("You can't stand me? Get you a stool") and then two bars later, offers a bit of wise advice that seems like the last thing he would have said as a popping 16-year-old phenom: "You gotta make investments, stop buying shoes." For most rappers, the headaches Keef gave Interscope execs and his subsequent removal from the label would spell career death, but for Keef, it's meant a new chance at life. He was forcibly removed from his Chicago throne by police and major labels, and now exiled in L.A., he's smoking mountains of kush, riding dirt bikes, and becoming a self-taught enigma. Lil B and Soulja Boy paved the way for this type of rap career, but Keef, seemingly no longer interested in a major Twitter presence or petty beefs, might be the one to eventually perfect it.