A rare, cohesive body of work from the reclusive Chicagoan innovator.
Chief Keef, born Keith Cozart in a city he’s since been banned from, is approaching his 22nd birthday. Over the past six years of his career, he’s birthed an entire scene of music, engaged in deadly beefs and faced equally dire legal issues. In his own words, he describes a cycle of potential success being marred by violence and death - preventing him from fully realizing his talent. Before long, the forced exile from Chicago, coupled with the birth of his children and the death of his cousin, Big Glo, sent him seeking salvation in the relative quiet of Los Angeles.
An introverted creative, he took to the Hollywood lifestyle in his own way - burrowed in his mansion, surrounded by a group of those he trusts most, learning how to produce from the likes of DP Beats. And after the high of his well-documented collaborations with Kanye West, climaxing with the stunning turn on “Hold My Liquor”, his presence felt muted. But in the context of his aforementioned soul-searching, it kinda makes sense: he fell out with certain associates, withdrew into himself even more, and started unceremoniously dumping out tapes under his own label, Glo Gang.
Regardless, the inconsistency of his output since his 2011 breakout hit “I Don’t Like,” is often exaggerated. If you’ve been paying a lick of attention, Keef’s prolific nature and propensity to lackadaisically freestyle his way around cult classics has been readily apparent (“Faneto”; “Earned It”; “Sosa Chamberlin”). So have his more traditional capabilities as a rapper and songwriter (see: any of his features on Travis Scott, Mike WiLL Made It or Mac Miller’s recent projects). But despite a consistent stream of output, including a project dedicated to the late Atlantan icon, Bankroll Fresh, from this past January, it’s the long anticipated Thot Breaker (first teased for Valentine’s Day a lifetime ago, in 2015) that finally feels like his next definitive body of work.
While there are a whole slew of mixtape and double album's worth of content we can parse over, this feels like a direct follow up to 2014’s Nobody. Where Finally Rich, his debut two years prior,was received on the biggest of stages, spawning three massive hits, the follow up was a layered and understated experiment that unfortunately fell on deaf ears. Nobody and Thot Breaker are of the same ilk and a large part of why an elusive artist like Keef can be so riveting. The latter reaches for a larger audience than the guarded rumination found on the former, but it still comes from an earnest desire to vocalize and subsequently process one’s most primal insecurities. And both remind us of the pride Keef takes in workshopping and refining his talents.
Where he once believed the industry to think of him as a “joke,” Keef now seems to be comfortable with his place as an innovator. So while it’s easy to take his own claim that Drake inspired the island vibes of lead single “Can You Be My Friend,” and extend that influence to the whole tape, it’s worth remembering the deep rooted origin of Keef’s idiosyncrasies. The melodic DNA of Thot Breaker stems from album cuts as early as “No Tomorrow” to off-the-cuff experiments like “Go To Jail”, “Oh My Goodness”, or “How it Go.” In many ways, it’s a natural maturation of his craft, a logical extension of the vivid, auto-tuned evocation found in many of Keef’s more understated ballads.
These are same the disarmingly tender, drug addled thoughts, skewed through the lens of a young cult hero’s irreverence, that we've come to expect from Keef. He isn’t extending himself too much as a rapper on here, but he wears his heart on his sleeve and the blunt, sparse writing makes for increasingly poetic turns. Much to his credit, Keef is effortlessly honest in a way many of his contemporaries often struggle with. Where artists like Drake, Bryson Tiller or Future become vindictive and self-indulgent in their emotional manipulation, he walks the line between callous and caring with a lot more finesse. If you fall for him, despite the dozen red flags he’s raised himself, he assumes you’re doing so at your own risk. This mindset is best exemplified by the “Grab a Star” hook:
Mama say I have trust issues, I been feelin' like Jesus
She wants me to be her man, I can't baby, I'ma break you
Baby, I would not lie to you, I'd be careful if I were you
And when he starts falling too deep himself, he prematurely concocts ways to distance himself, afraid to invest energy into something he feels he’ll eventually mishandle. "I know I can fuck up, another man can luck up” quickly turns to “yeah, she say she want some more, I say that's all I got to give.” Despite the deep, hypnotic love he experiences on tracks like “Whoa” or “You & Me,” he takes any minor speed bump as a chance to flee the scene. It becomes clear that he still fantasizes about the idea of love - always chasing after his next Rapunzel. But he’s working on it.
Keef has become quite the virtuoso in recent years, his keen ear for melody and his rapidly improving capabilities as a composer elevating this project to new heights. He's clearly studied the modern R&B landscape, but it’s what he subsequently chooses to draw from the mainstream that’s most interesting. There’s an equal balance between instrumentals that breathe, ones that are dark and claustrophobic, and ones that are refreshing in their up tempo bounce. The album is also structured as a blatant struggle between his ego and his heart, with minor touches, like the skit at the start of “Couple of Coats,” really highlighting Keef’s paranoia and struggle with communication.
Thot Breaker isn't as malicious as the title suggests, but it’s definitely anchored by Keef’s ostensibly shameless womanizing. “Alone (Intro)” acts as Keef’s thesis statement, making clear his intent to pardon himself from any emotional damage that may lay in his wake: "I am not trying to redo your life," he assures anyone who may be interested in the young Zac Efron. But you can tell it's a front. Fortunately, it’s a mask he slips off enough times to give us a true picture of his bruised ego. Trust, intimacy and commitment issues - these are love scars we all bare. And like many of us, he wears disaffection as a form of armour, only selectively revealing the helpless romantic underneath.
Nothing exemplifies this dynamic like the pair of closing songs. “Slow Dance” is a stripped down confessional, a last ditch effort to maintain what you’ve underappreciated. It’s a renewal of vows that’s from a genuine place, despite being a forced hand. “Her face suitable for my chest,” is definitely a line that’s going to win you a second chance - I don’t care what transgressions you’ve committed. “Going Home,” on the other hand, is him pushing away again, in the kind of self-assured, “let’s just live in the moment” way Keef has spent the whole album mastering. He knows she’s gonna fall in love with him - because “every woman does” - but he also knows his lifestyle isn’t conducive to being wifed up (“But we can't go out in public, there's paparazzi to dodge”).
Thot Breaker resonates because of this expertly choreographed dance. It plays like a lucid self-assessment from a man taking a moment to appreciate the progress he’s made thus far, despite being acutely self-aware of his persistent shortcomings.