Review by: Michael Strait
Exploring self-contained musical subcultures has long been a passion of mine. I find something deeply fascinating about them; they’re usually completely divorced from the trends of the mainstream, but if they stick around for long enough they usually end up influencing the mainstream in at least some small way. Exploring a musical subculture is like delving into a separate world, but it’s also a way to see the world through new eyes; subcultures have their own rules, their own conventions and their own ideas of the way music should be, and they tend to reflect a thoroughly non-mainstream way of thinking. As such, I’m now starting a series called Subcultural Explorations in which I shall delve into various different musical subcultures and try to get to the bottom of what makes them tick. It’s not gonna be organised and I’m not gonna keep to any sort of regular schedule, but I’ll try to update frequently.
So, without further ado, here’s the inaugural post!
THE INAUGURAL POST
So – drill music. Nihilistic muck flowing from the streets of Chicago like blood. This mixtape holds the dual distinctions of being both the scene’s breakout moment and a definitive summary of its general philosophy and aesthetic, so I feel it’s as good a place to start as any.
Make no mistake: Chief Keef really is as utterly, all-encompassingly nihilistic as the harshest noise artist. He’s a rapper, technically, but he doesn’t really come across as one; it’s more like he’s leading a series of baying, primal chants, slowly forcing out each syllable as if they’re getting caught behind his teeth. He packs each word with such contemptuous, vindictive force that after a while he starts to sound demented, like a dumb war-beast on some rage-enhancing drug, gutturally barking out the word “Bang!” through a layer of hot spittle while mindlessly brandishing his firearm. At no point in this mixtape does Keef express anything resembling a complex sentiment, and very rarely does he use a word that goes significantly over the two-syllable mark. He’s a soulless, barbarous brute, and he operates entirely on instinctual lower functions. It’s a damn good thing this mixtape is only forty-two minutes long, ‘cos any longer and all the bludgeoning would start to become genuinely numbing.
I don’t buy the idea that it takes no talent to rap like this, though. Soulja Boy and some guy called Yale Lucciani deliver their guest verses like they’re trying to cop Keef’s style without fully understanding what makes it tick, and in both cases the end result is dismal. SD and Lil Reese do better – Lil Reese’s “You not with the shits, you could die tonight” might be the most quietly frightening moment on the whole tape – but they’re still not as effortlessly captivating on the mic as Keef himself. I don’t know exactly what talent Keef possesses that makes him such a fascinating presence, but he’s definitely got something; the guy really does manage to sound like he’s been dredged out from the base neanderthal sludge at the bottom of human nature. It’s a very one-dimensional aesthetic, but it’s very convincing.
Besides, he’s got Young Chop behind him to keep things interesting. That guy’s beats surround Keef like dense fog, packed so full of rich sounds and conflicting little motifs that he sometimes almost disappears behind them. On “True Religion Fein”, he has to spit his epithets through a dense collection of hi-hats and snares that take up so much space they threaten to drown him out entirely; on “Sosa”, he’s accompanied by a synth ostinato that sonically metamorphoses into something different for every segment, sounding like a piercing digital siren one moment and a distant mechanical whine the next. There’s some soft little pianesque synths on “Designer” that somehow still manage to sound kinda foggy and dirty, and some reverent tones emanating from a church organ on “Trust None” as he wields his mace and destroys the pews. Then, of course, there’s “I Don’t Like”, with that little synth metronome chiming ceaselessly away like it’s part of the fabric of the universe while percussive bass notes erupt from underground, surrounding and subsuming Keef like a pyroclastic flow as he spits and bays. It’s all very grandiose, sweeping and ominous, but the strength and density of that rhythm section keeps it grounded. I mean, listen to the hi-hats on “Everyday” – they’re so fast they’ve all blurred into one continuous tone!
Of course, even judged on its own merits it’s not perfect. A good number of Keef’s lyrics dip below his usual nihilistically mindless level and end up outright cringeworthy; “Realnigga.com, bitch nigga log in” is a proper facepalm moment, and Yale Lucciani’s “You don’t have a chance/ Bitch I shop in France” is no better. The autotune that creeps in on a couple of tracks towards the end is very amateurish, and sounds deeply unpleasant in a way that doesn’t really add to the aesthetic. “Save That Shit” is pretty much an entirely pointless throwaway, and King Louie just sounds weird and out of place on “Winnin'” – he’s always been the most Atlanta-esque of all the Chicago drill rappers, and his feelgood materialism doesn’t quite gel with Keef’s pure destructive nihilism. And on a broader level, you can’t listen to this too many times in a row or you really do start to feel yourself degrading to a primordial state; after finishing this review I think I’m gonna blast some 80s synthpop or maybe 70s funk & soul, ‘cos I’ll need it to purge all the soul-blackening muck Chief Keef poured down my brainstem while I was writing it. But that’s drill, and that’s why I find it so fascinating. The blackest depths of Michael Gira’s output in the 80s don’t match the sheer, mind-numbing intensity of the nihilism you can find in this kind of music, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to it. Expect more on it soon, for sure.