I read an article in the Chicago Reader on a north-suburban library’s proud decision to advertise that it’ll be carrying Chief Keef’s debut album, Finally Rich, in its music collection. Explaining why he seemed so eager to promote his library’s latest addition, librarian Andy Kim said, “He [Chief Keef] is a local artist and it is his debut album, and in some music circles he’s considered somewhat of a rising star.”
Now, I don’t mind that Kim and the Reader insist Keef has “cultural and historical significance.” I’m not even that bothered by the librarian calling the South Side rapper a “rising star.” But I can’t seem to forgive his labeling of Keef as an “artist.”
It’s common practice to categorize anyone living in the Chicago area as a “local artist” or a “local musician” if he or she puts any type of noise on a CD, tape or YouTube (and I guess vinyl, too).
But surely there are varying gradations of noise that make some noise art and some noise just, well, noise. If I sing badly on a street corner within earshot of you, would you call me a “local artist”? What if I put it on a CD or cassette tape? How about then?
Of course not (or, at least, I hope not).
In trying to untangle my reasons behind my objection to Chief Keef being labeled as an artist, I settled on a rather simple explanation that can be summed up in three words forming one charming alliteration: method, message and medium.
Put another way, art is distinguished from other forms of expression by the craft that’s put into it, the thoughts and emotions it conveys and the way in which its effect is delivered. Using this metric — which I’m sure many readers will disagree with — we can analyze Keef’s music and conclude that Chief Keef is no artist.
(Before I go on, note that I’m not taking the popular position that “all forms of expression are art,” or “bad art is still art,” as I’ve heard it asserted enough times. In my view, which may be a minority opinion, only good art can be called true art.)
Let’s look at Keef’s most recent offering, “Love Sosa.” Admittedly, the song is catchy, but so is HIV. And I would never consider any song a work of art solely based on its catchiness. Minimal skill and craft are applied in both the song’s lyrical composition and beat production. (But that didn’t stop Drake from showering praise on the song and boastfully tweeting that he played the song “at least 130 plays in the last 3 days.”) The lyricism is amateur, relying on simple phrases and even rhyming the same word — either “boy” or “Sosa” — ad nauseum for much of the song. Kanyeezy, another Chicago MC, could rap circles around Keef ; and I don’t even like Kanye, yet I concede that he is an artist.
So, the first reason why Chief Keef can’t be considered an artist: his skills as a rapper are nonexistent.
Moving to the message behind his beginner lyrics, the subject matter that “Love Sosa” focuses on is what we’ve come to expect from so-called “gangsta rap.” Chief Keef, whose other alias is apparently “Sosa”, repeats throughout the song how much women want to sleep with him and how dangerous him and his crew are to those that might disrespect. The message here is what I imagine a stray dog would rap about if it could speak: this is my turf; this is my pack; these are my bitches; beware.
A prevailing opinion argues that because Keef is a rapper from one of the most dangerous places on earth, South Side Chicago, the lyrical content of his music effectively mirrors the bitter realities of his neighborhood. I’m rather partial to this argument, and insofar as I do, I like “Love Sosa” because, as I’ve explained to a few friends, it’s like going to the South Side without going to the South Side. Of course, a song like “Love Sosa” doesn’t fully capture the harsh environs or what it’s like to live there. Still I can’t help thinking that the song serves up a rare glimpse into the mind of a South Sider —if not a typical South Sider, a true South Sider, nonetheless.
The same effect made Lupe Fiasco, a West Side rapper, admit that people like Chief Keef scared him. “Not him specifically,” Lupe told 92Q in Baltimore, “but just the culture that he represents, specifically in Chicago. When you drive through Chicago — the hoodlums, the gangsters, and the ones you see killing each other — and the murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing, and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it, they all look like Chief Keef.”
Like Lupe, I find myself drawn to “Love Sosa” in the same way I’m drawn to a good horror flick, which is to say the song and its creator scare the shit out of me, and to an extent other rap doesn’t. It’s because I know Keef means what he’s saying, and there are some listeners, especially in Chicago, who know he’s not talking about some imaginary world that only exists in songs. It’s there, between the bricks and steel, tears and blood.
But his message’s authenticity doesn’t lend itself to art. Keef’s a reporter, at best.
And even then, we know Chief Keef isn’t rapping about this or that subject because he thinks it’s important that people understand who he is, where he’s from and what life’s like in South Side Chicago. He raps about making money, having sex and shooting people only because he thinks it’s cool — and because rapping about such things will allow him to make more money and have more sex. (Unfortunately, he’s right.)
So, the second reason why Chief Keef can’t be considered an artist: his messages don’t sprout from an artistic urge and are devoid of any unique insight.
Finally, concerning Keef’s medium, music — hip hop music, specifically — here we find much of the force behind any argument for art. Hip hop is a legitimate art form that, when a mic is in able hands, allows someone to forcefully speak to and for the neglected denizens of America’s cities. The words and sounds aren’t simple reportage, telling you what’s happening in the bypassed places. Hip hop represents the dreams of uplift and rebirth of an inner-city, subjugated, outcast under class.
Chief Keef not only fails — in fact, seems unwilling — to refine the quality of his medium. He fails even to provide the quality that hip hop initially offered. Keef’s hip hop might’ve been revolutionary back in 1992, but the year’s now 2013, and hip hop, I would hope, has moved far beyond the days of NWA.
The third reason why Keef isn’t an artist: not only does he make bad music, he makes bad hip hop.
This brief commentary isn’t a call for censorship. I’m no Castro, and I’m not suggesting society place restrictions on music I think isn’t art and doesn’t offer any cultural benefit.
What this is is a defense of art. How artful and effective it is will undoubtedly be contended by more than a few readers.
The music that rappers like Chief Keef disseminate through the airwaves is not art, but something masquerading as art. And while it’s become chic among the masses to insist that all music is art, whether good or bad, the claim can’t possibly be true. Because if all music is art, then there’s no such thing as art to begin with.
I, for one, refuse to believe art is an illusion. There is something called art. The true artist does exist. His method, message and medium make him distinguishable from the rabble, those artistic pretenders.
Chief Keef may not be a pretender, but he’s definitely not an artist.