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Ways Of Glo’ing

Chief Keef, John Berger, and the true value of art

On the first day of the New Year, Chief Keef released a new mixtape — matter-of-factly titled Two Zero One Seven — after slipping through 2016 unusually quietly. Camp GloTiggy, his full-length collaboration with Zaytoven and sole release of last year, came and went without much notice in May. That in itself wasn’t especially unusual if you’ve been following the last three or so years of Keef’s output — or, more likely, if you haven’t been. Perhaps, instead, you’ve been waiting for the second coming of “Love Sosa,” or anything resembling a traditional hit record from the now-21-year-old rapper, in which case I hope you brought a good book to read in the meantime. Last November, Keef headlined ComplexCon’s Pigeons & Planes stage to perform the entirety of his 2012 album Finally Rich with a few longtime associates, as though he, Fredo, Ballout, and Young Chop were Pink Floyd doing Dark Side of the Moon. It was a fun idea, and appeared to be a fun performance, but something about the concept gave me pause. Were there really no songs people wanted to hear that Keef recorded in the four years since his major-label debut? Was that album, recorded when he was 16, the rapper’s magnum opus — or was it just the one everyone knows the words to?

Keef’s YouTube stats, meanwhile, tell a different story. By far the most popular video on his official channel is for “Earned It,” a 2014 loosie that ballooned into a massive Chicago street hit, with nearly 50 million views in less than two years. 2014’s self-produced “Faneto,” the biggest underground record of Keef’s career, has more than 22 million views for an audio track played over a still image of the Bang 3 cover. At over 16 million views is “Fool Ya,” my favorite of Keef’s covert arsenal of semi-recent hits, from his 2015 tape Almighty DP. For comparison, the 4-year-old “Love Sosa” video has about 65 million views; the video for Finally Rich cult classic “Citgo,” in which Keef destroys his suburban backyard with four-wheelers, clocks in about 15 million; and the iconic “I Don’t Like” video has roughly 21 million views on his official Vevo, which has remained untouched since Keef was dropped from Interscope in 2014. In other words, any claim that Keef has “fallen off” in recent years refers not to real-world popularity but to commercial success — a metric that never seemed to interest him in the first place.

Exactly five years prior to Two Zero One Seven’s release, on New Year’s Day 2012, Chief Keef’s career unofficially began — not because of a song, or a mixtape, but a hilarious and rather sweet video of a young teenage boy losing his fucking mind upon hearing that Keef had been released after his arrest for pointing a gun at a police officer. The following day, the clip hit WorldStarHipHop, posted under the header: “Its Something Wrong With This Lil Boy: Freaks Out When He Finds Out His Favorite Rapper ‘Chief Keef’ Gets Out Of Jail!” Before the video, virtually no one outside of Chicago’s South Side had known Keef existed. Days later, the title track of his mixtape Bang had gone viral. The strange origin story tends to be forgotten in recent conversations about rap hits like “Black Beatles” and “Bad and Boujee,” whose popularity has been linked to memes by varying degrees of correlation and causation. But the WorldStar video wasn’t really what made Chief Keef famous, just as, I’d argue, funny tweets didn’t make Migos’s latest hit successful (unless, of course, you consider rap as a strictly commercial gambit). These viral bits of media merely provided a window into a preexistent world previously inaccessible to Chief Keef’s new audience, who could now experience remotely what teenagers in insular pockets of Chicago had been sharing and obsessing over for months.

The day after Two Zero One Seven’s release, John Berger — the greatest art critic of the past century — died at age 90. I say “art critic” because that was his best-known role, but the term feels to me an insufficient summation of Berger’s range as a thinker and creator. He was a painter, a poet, a novelist, a screenwriter, a Marxist, a skeptic, a sensualist, a humanist. In the week since his death, I’ve rewatched Ways of Seeing, Berger’s four-part 1972 BBC series, which would later be adapted into his most popular book. The title initially reads as a bit vague, but Berger employs it with a spellbinding sense of purpose. “It isn’t so much the paintings themselves which I want to consider, but the way we now see them,” he says to introduce the first episode. And if we understand how and why we see paintings today in a crucially different way than they were seen historically, before the conception of modernism and the popularization of the camera, he emphasizes, “We shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living.”

Berger goes on to describe the seemingly simple act of seeing as far less of an objective, natural process than it is generally understood to be. He explains that perspective, by nature, is as individualized as each unique eyeball. But the invention and increasing accessibility of the camera radically subverts this understanding: Where once perspective was unique to each individual viewer, who had to travel directly to an image in order to see it, an infinite number of viewers may now see the same image reproduced at once, in their own rooms, in the context of their own lives. “The meaning of a painting no longer resides in its unique painted image,” Berger explains. “Its meaning, or a large part of it, is transmittable. It comes to you, like the news of an event. It has become information of a sort.” I immediately wondered what Berger would make of our current habit of referring to culture as “content” — how even the terminology itself affects our experience of what any given piece of media entails.

Now, Berger stresses, the fact that reproduction makes a work’s meaning ambiguous is not necessarily a bad thing. The accessibility allowed by photographic reproduction (which has obviously increased exponentially in the age of the internet, and applies beyond still images to sounds, videos, and more) allows us to apply these works to the context of our own lives, to connect them directly with our own experiences — to use them more like words than like material relics. It’s not so different from the way memes function today, gaining meaning in the subtle transformation created through the act of sharing. The real problem, Berger explains, has to do with the art world’s gatekeepers: the defensive elitism of the buyers, sellers, academics, and curators through whose hands artists’ work once necessarily had to pass in order to reach our eyes. These so-called experts do not, in fact, want us to process these works on our own terms, for that would redistribute their power. And therein lies the modern art world’s greatest tension, which the internet has taken great strides to resolve.

It’s easy to apply these issues directly to the current state of the music industry, which offers restrictive and cynical deals to teenagers like Chief Keef — artists who crack the code of virality not by algorithms but by making shit people like (who would’ve thought?) — then discards them the moment their commercial viability wanes. Streaming culture, in its ideal, represents unprecedented access and individualization for listeners. In practice, of course, this is not what has happened. As mega-corporate streaming services have come to replace not just physical music but collectable mp3s and DIY platforms, I’ve found it paradoxically more difficult to access the music I want. (See: the crackdown on barely tenable instances of copyright infringement on formerly user-friendly platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube; the increasing emphasis on exclusivity between competing streaming services; the death of Vine; the deletion of What.CD.) The music industry’s most powerful gatekeepers and benefactors — tech corporations, major labels, various and sundry shades of pseudo sympathetic billionaire — are, in fact, opposed to the ideals they may appear to champion. As it does with any other art form, the access that lets listeners create their own meaning is what redistributes the old gatekeepers’ power, and with it, their money.

Over the past few years, I have come to find the term “consumer,” as a replacement for “listener” or “viewer,” increasingly repulsive. In that sense, Ways of Seeing has a semantic resonance that goes beyond its brilliant thesis. There are many kinds of critics, who perform many different functions. Some I find useful in the utilitarian sense; some I would describe as entertaining; others I consider world-opening; and many, the opposite of that. There are critics who treat their audience as consumers, and are primarily invested in the process of that consumption. And there are those who consider their audience as seers, listeners, or witnesses of art, and who believe that distinction still matters. John Berger was the best art critic of my lifetime, but “seer” still feels a more appropriate term. I don’t mean to diminish the cutting precision of his criticism, of course. But the power, the resonance, and the awe I get from his work reside not in the act of critique, but the quiet, not-remotely-simple act of seeing.

The day of Berger’s death, a great piece by Robert Minto was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ site. It focuses on Berger’s Marxism, his antimaterialistic sense of materialism, and perhaps his greatest influence, the German theorist and historian Max Raphael, who Berger called “a forgotten but great critic” in the dedication of his 1965 book The Success and Failure of Picasso. Raphael, a broad-ranging scholar and an acquaintance of Picasso and Matisse in early-20th-century Paris, effectively laid out the foundation for our understanding of “modernity” in the art historical context (and coined the theory of expressionism). As Minto explains, Raphael identified the two distinct operations which an artist performs: “On the one hand, the artist turns raw material into artistic material by shaping it to represent an idea or object. … On the other, the artist turns his perception into something external and objective, a representation. The work of art is the result of these two transformations, of raw stuff and of subjective perception into an art object. For Raphael, the point of art is these two transformations: they are the artist’s way of ‘undoing the world of things’ and constructing ‘the world of values.’” Berger was deeply inspired by these ideas, and took them even further in his own work on the revolutionary potential of art and art criticism. Minto puts it beautifully when he says that Berger believed that “the most important meaning of art is what it shows us of our ability to create the world we want.”

Perhaps this begins to explain the source of so many listeners’ confusion when it comes to Chief Keef’s post-2012 work, as it grows ever distant from the context of drill — which, more than just a genre, is an idea moored to our understanding of the city of Chicago, the environment in which Keef learned to make his art. Drill songs may not have been comprehensible or palatable to everyone, but for a critic, it was fairly straightforward to draw a line between our sociopolitical conception of Chicago to the sounds and themes of the music itself. It was harsh, it was stark, it was violent, and we imagined we understood why. Over the past several years, Keef’s music has grown increasingly immune to this kind of analysis. For one, he is barely able to set foot in Chicago, much less live there. He expresses himself through self-taught production, and vocally, through melody and tone, as often as he does verbally through the act of rapping. Most of all, as he evolves as an artist, his music represents not what is outside his front porch but what is inside his head — the world he wants to live in, instead of the one he has to. To me, this is just as worthy of attention and discussion — and, if I’m frank, more so — than the early drill work that made Keef famous. The starting point for analysis shouldn’t be our preexisting notions of context, but an attempt to listen in the way Keef might listen.

Back to the ever-relevant Berger, to whom the ultimate crisis of the modern art world lay in the clash between two opposing conceptions of art’s value. The first is based in Raphael’s theories of art as an act of transformation, the seeing out of an artist’s vision that brings the real world closer to the one they conceived in their head. The second is based in commerce and ownership. “Since 1948,” wrote Berger in his book Landscapes: John Berger on Art, “every artist unready to be a mere paid entertainer has tried to resist the bourgeoisation of his finished work, the transformation of the spiritual value of his work into property value. … What Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and so on, all shared was their opposition to art-as-property and art-as-cultural-alibi-for-existing-society. We know the extremes to which they went … and we see that their resistance was ineffective.” That the dominant conception of art sees a work’s value as directly proportionate to its price represented, to Berger, a complete failure of the art world and its gatekeepers. He went on: “It is necessary to make an imaginative effort which runs contrary to the whole contemporary trend of the art world: it is necessary to see works of art freed from all the mystique which is attached to them as property objects. It then becomes possible to see them as testimony to the process of their own making instead of as products; to see them in terms of action instead of finished achievement. The question: what went into the making of this? supersedes the collector’s question of: what is this?”

There may not be much “property value,” as it were, in the songs on Keef’s Two Zero One Seven tape, or, for that matter, in the last few years of his strange, beguiling, warping material. “Check,” which he produced himself (as he did more than half of the tape’s 17 tracks), seems like the closest thing to a hit with its traditional trap sounds, but it still feels too rough around the edges to “succeed” by mainstream standards. There are tracks which I wouldn’t skip on a full listen, but probably wouldn’t listen to again on their own, of varyingly shitty degrees of audio quality. And there are the gems, as there are on even the sloppiest of Keef's projects — songs that redeem the entire endeavor, whose flows, melodies, ad-libs, and production quirks are sure to never be repeated again. (“I’m going psycho / Nothing’s recycled,” he reminds us on “Hit the Lotto.”) These songs exist as archives of passing moods, ideas, and jokes more than finished products optimized for PR blurbs and iTunes downloads. There is “So Tree,” with a twinkly Lex Luger beat over which Keef feigns his “classic” flow before swerving into much more complicated rhyme patterns, and the short, sweet closing ballad “Anything Gets You Paid.” There is “Fix That,” a constantly shifting showcase for Keef’s most accomplished and varied technical rapping in recent memory (and his most interesting self-produced beat on the tape, fading in and out of range and slipping suddenly into disintegrating Auto-Tune wails). My favorite moment, “Hit the Lotto,” features Keef’s absurdly talented sister, Kash (formerly Glory Girl Kashout), and the kind of spontaneous, striking wit which has marked Keef’s past few years of material: “You can’t stand me? Get you a stool!”

It may not be his best tape, or in his top five. But it’s another fascinating snapshot of Keef’s constantly evolving, proudly un-commodifiable work — a further undoing of the world of things — and that alone justifies its existence. You might even say it makes him the most defiantly modern rapper working.