Four years ago, a 19-year-old Chief Keef performed live, via hologram, from a soundstage in Beverly Hills for a secret charity concert in Chicago, which he was avoiding because the CPD had multiple warrants out for his arrest. Cops shut down the concert after one song (“Don’t Like”). Keef’s brief life as a hologram nevertheless remains an inspired moment of 21st century pirate radio that doubles as a fitting metaphor for his status as a modern rap folk hero. At once omnipresent and elusive, Keef has traversed a bizarre career arc that doesn’t square with his outsized influence on today’s generation of “mumble” rappers, which is as profound as Gucci Mane’s influence on his own generation. In 2018, he released nine mixtapes, yet somehow the defining moment of his year was Tekashi 6ix9ine putting a hit out on his cousin.
When Keef released The Leek Vol. 7 in January, it looked like he was headed for another year of way too many mixtapes. That has changed with the release of GloToven, his new 12-track collaboration with Zaytoven. Zay’s grounding presence, as well as the designation of the release as an album rather than a mixtape imbues GloToven with a certain heft – it’s something that Keef can really hang his hat on. Throughout the project, Zaytoven cooks up the sort of accessible, piano-driven trap beats that have made him one of the most instantly recognizable producers in hip-hop. He’s like a grandma baker returning to her time-tested snickerdoodle recipe – the results won’t surprise you, but they’re guaranteed to slap. Zaytoven’s beats provide a stable testing ground on which Keef conducts casual experiments with his voice, pressing up against the limits of his instrument and playing with his melodic side in particular.
GloToven is full of sudden tonal shifts on Keef’s end. On the superb “Sneeze,” he emphasizes the word “glock” with such force that it feels like he stomped his foot on the accelerator of his Ferrari. On “Ain’t Gonna Happen,” he alternates between an earnest, conversational tone and a falsetto as pure as a waterfall. While he continues to dole out the most unpredictable ad-libs in the game (e.g.“yap-yap-yap” to illustrate a girl arguing), he returns often to his signature “bang.” But even then, he drops these “bangs” in wildly different contexts, from distrusting lovers to home invasions, and packages them variously in a stage whisper (“Posse”), with a resigned shrug (“Petty”), and with a country twang more Keith Urban than Keith Cozart (“Sneeze”).
While Keef occasionally delivers a tightly constructed couplet – like “This a gang of dons, we got a gang of guns/ I don’t give guns to my son, my daddy gave me one” on the opener “3rd Person” — more often he employs a wandering lyrical style, such that when he finds a groove, he occupies it and toys with it for an extended period of time. On “Spy Kid,” he observes the sharks and minnows that circle around him: “I spy another opp, leave his ass spilled/ Made him sign a non-disclosure, business can’t spill. I spy a dinosaur OG…” It feels like he could go on like this all day. Meanwhile, Lil Pump adopts Keef’s gruff cadence on GloToven’s lone guest verse, during which he references his now-infamous toe-sucking incident involving Riley Reid.
GloToven reaches its unexpectedly poignant climax on “Ain’t Gonna Happen,” where a weepy piano intro inspires Keef to take a brief moment for sober reflection. He yearns for friends who’ve died or gone to jail: “The only thing I’m ducking the militia/ And fans when I’m tired of taking pictures/ Face dried up/ From all of the tears I cried up/ Lost most them niggas I ride for/ I got something to prove, I’ll slide through.” Keef bundles his sense of loss with his solitude. The song doesn’t feel like Keef dumping out his grief so much as him briefly pulling back the curtain and offering a glimpse of himself, holed up in his house somewhere in the hills of Los Angeles, feeling a little empty inside.