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Chief Keef debut no great leap forward for hip-hop

Chief Keef

Chief Keef

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Updated: December 17, 2012 5:59PM

Chief Keef “Finally Rich” (Interscope) ★★ The opening of “Ballin’” — a deep track on Chief Keef’s hotly anticipated major-label debut, “Finally Rich,” out Tuesday — finds Keef, aka South Sider Keith Cozart, ruminating on paths not taken. Mentioning his 13-year-old sister, Keef says, “She thought I was gonna be a lawyer before I be a rapper or something. She crazy.”

Chief Keef, however, already has learned a few things about the law.

The 17-year-old rapper rocketed to fame earlier this year while on house arrest at his grandmother’s Washington Park home, recording several mixtapes as Chief Keef. These circulated widely and resulted in record labels descending on the South Side, snatching up Chief Keef (to Interscope) and others from Chicago’s new hip-hop scene — a dreary, weary, violence-glorifying subgenre called “drill.”

Cozart is still on probation for pointing a gun at a Chicago cop, and police recently investigated his connections to Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman, a fellow teen rapper slainin September. Nonetheless, Chief Keef managed two months in Los Angeles to record “Finally Rich.” The album’s Tuesday debut comes one day after a status hearing on a new wrinkle in his case — prosecutors allege he violated probation by appearing in an online Pitchfork Media video filmed at a gun range — though he’s expected to remain a free man to celebrate his album release.

There’s a little to celebrate, at least musically, though not as much as fans may have hoped. “Finally Rich” is no great leap forward for hip-hop, but it maintains the raw spark that first fired enthusiasm for those mixtapes.

Sex, weed, money and guns — not always in that order — dominate the simple, usually simplistic, rhymes on “Finally Rich.” Scoring and spending a pile of money is No. 1 on Keef’s mind. “I’m a rich ass n----, hallelujah!” Keef declares early on (“Hallelujah”) and then keeps beating the boasts: “I just walk up in the mall then I buy the whole store” (“Diamonds”), “All I do is spend dough” (“Ballin’”), “Count so much money that my fingers cramp” (“Understand Me”).

For a guy who claims to be so thrilled about being rich, he doesn’t sound like he’s having any fun. Only when producer Young Chop (Tyree Pittman) takes a freer hand with his beats does the laid-back Keef’s blood seem to stir. “No Tomorrow” drones over cool, swirling synth loops, and the change-up rhythms of “Kay Kay” balance a rare personal moment with his otherwise duty-bound performance. “Laughin’ to the Bank” actually does so, mixing hilarious, affected ha-ha’s into a series of Muppety nonsense phrases.

“I made my own style,” says Keef in a recent Billboard interview. Keef’s distinctive, all right — a monotonous mumble with a unique way of leaving words flattened and unfinished. In “No Tomorrow,” he’s in such a rush to live as if there isn’t one that he shorthands it as “to-mah.” When it doesn’t sound like an early-morning, wake-and-bake rehearsal take, it’s fairly hypnotic.

Requisite guests include fellow mush-mouth 50 Cent, contributing unusually crisp, drawling verses to “Hate Bein’ Sober” along with Wiz Khalifa. Elsewhere, cameos include French Montana, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and fellow South Sider Lil Reese on the reprise of Keef’s breakout (and Kanye West-ordained) hit “I Don’t Like,” snarling, retaliatory threats intact.

But the “Finally Rich” body count is mostly Benjamins. Arriving as it is amid an emerging a new national debate about gun violence and near the end of one of Chicago’s bloodiest years, the album and its creator’s remorseless rap persona could factor in as a flashpoint for discussion. But unless Keef ups his game at the mike after this plateau of a premiere, he runs a greater risk of being just a flash in the pan.

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