Keef's new single, the aptly titled "Fuck Rehab,' is expected soon.
It's the end of January, but the Orange County air is balmy — the kind of weather Southern California is enviously famous for. Surfers dot the beach, basking in the remaining moments of sunlight as dusk sets in. But at least one onlooker can't wait to leave the idyllic setting behind. Nestled inside a nondescript beach house, one of hip-hop's most controversial rising stars is holed up in court-ordered rehab, and he's feeling frustrated and alone.
"It's like being locked up," Chief Keef, 18, tells Billboard, in his first interview since he entered rehab. "And when I'm locked up, I don't want anybody to come see me. I won't let my family come here. I haven't seen my 2-year-old daughter."
The Chicago rapper, born Keith Cozart, is staring out a large bay window in the wood-paneled upstairs den at Wavelengths Recovery, a private sober-living home at an undisclosed Orange County location. Keef's been here for the past two months, ever since a judge sentenced him to 90 days of rehab after he tested positive for marijuana in October while on probation for a gun charge. The sentence began at Promises, the Malibu detox of choice for A-listers like Britney Spears, until Keef got fed up. "I had to stay with 30 motherfuckers — and I don't like people," Keef says. "I ain't no friendly-ass ni—a. I won't shake your hand if I don't like you. Don't speak to me."
At Wavelengths, he's supervised 24 hours a day in a regimen focused on sleep training, nutrition and spirituality. Hollywood stars like Denzel Washington have visited him, and he can leave for approved excursions — mainly to the recording studio, where he's finishing his second album, "Bang 3," due March 3. Keef says he hasn't even been in the water, just steps away. "The beach is cool, but it's just water," he says. "I can't do salt water — fucks my eyes up."
The sunny SoCal beach feels a world away from Keef's home base, the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, one of the most dangerous areas of a city plagued by gang violence. Growing up there, Keef was a magnet for trouble early on. In 2011, after building a fan base in local high schools, he was arrested for unlawful use of a weapon and aggravated assault after a run-in with the police, and sentenced to house arrest at his grandmother's apartment. Rumors swirled that he'd been killed in a police shootout, and when a fan-made video featuring a young child going berzerk over the rapper's return was picked up by Gawker and WorldStar Hip Hop, Keef's buzz went national. His nihilistic videos for "Bang" and "I Don't Like," featuring him and his shirtless friends waving guns and smoking weed, attracted millions of views. In 2012, "I Don't Like" was remixed by Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music crew, helping the song reach No. 10 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs chart. Keef and the local gangsta-rap scene he represented, known as drill, became hip-hop's newest fascination, and major labels wanted a piece of the action. He quickly inked an eye-popping deal with Interscope worth a reported $6 million.
Songs about guns and drugs set against the backdrop of Chicago's real-life violence have made Keef one of rap's most polarizing figures — troubling to some, alluringly authentic to others. And life has often seemed to imitate art: In September 2012, when Keef's rap adversary Lil JoJo was shot and killed in Chicago, Keef tweeted, "Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO," reportedly leading police to investigate his connection to the murder. (He later claimed that his Twitter account was hacked.) Shortly after, he was remanded to juvenile detention after doing an interview with Pitchfork at a gun range, thereby revoking his parole for the 2011 gun charge. More arrests (for speeding and disorderly conduct) and brief jail stays followed. Keef was even temporarily banned from Instagram for posting a picture of himself receiving oral sex.
"I'm 18 now, but I feel like I'm 30,' Keef says. "I partied like a motherfucker — guns, girls."
Keef's 2012 debut, "Finally Rich," only sold 50,000 its first week, according to Nielsen Sound-Scan, peaking at No. 5 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It went on to sell 217,000 copies altogether.
"A lot of times, I got pissed off at Keef," Peeda Pan, one of Keef's managers, tells Billboard while driving from Los Angeles to Wavelengths. He says the rapper blew off several high-profile opportunities surrounding "Finally Rich," including BET's "106 & Park' and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!' — but adds that he respects his client's autonomy. "He knows what he's doing a lot more than people give him credit for. He has control. People ask, ‘Why did he do that?' He knows why."
Keef points to past use of "lean," slang for the prescription cough syrup popular in some rap circles. "My last two mixtapes were mistakes," he admits. "I was on promethazine, all drugged out. I was tweaking. I don't sip the lean no more though."
Keef's contract reportedly included a clause that Interscope could drop him if "Finally Rich" didn't sell at least 250,000 copies by December 2013. In light of Keef's troubles, many wondered if the label would do just that. But Interscope executive VP of A&R Larry Jackson, who signed Keef after meeting him at his grandmother's house, says the label is behind Keef and "Bang 3."
"He sold 300,000 with no promotion," Jackson says, citing the label's worldwide sales figures for "Finally Rich." "People can say it was a stupid deal, but the project is in the black. Our marketing spend on it was literally crumbs.' Jackson points to the video for "Love Sosa," which has more than 36 million views on YouTube. "We spent $1,500 on that. I know videos that they've blown $500,000 on that don't have that many views."
Jackson and Keef declined to reveal much about "Bang 3." A photo of them in the studio with Kanye West, who will appear on the album, was leaked on Instagram in February, inciting the -album's biggest buzz to date. Drill's go-to producer, Young Chop, will also contribute. The first single, the aptly titled "Fuck Rehab," is expected soon.
But Keef's plans for pushing the album hinge on a Feb. 28 court date. That's when he will return to Chicago, where a judge will either deem his recovery successful or order him back to rehab. The owner of Wavelengths— who would only give his first name, Warren, citing the facility's emphasis on privacy — is optimistic. "His recovery is moving in a very positive direction. I think he's ready to move forward. He's a very kind young man."
Meanwhile, Keef is trying to make the most of his remaining time in Orange County by taking surf lessons from pro surfer Makua Rothman, and even wants to launch his own surf line. "Ain't nobody surf — everybody try to skateboard,' he says, referring to rappers like Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco. "It'll be cool. It's a hobby."
The court date looms heavy on his mind, but it does have an added benefit: He'll finally be home. "I know it's cold, but I love Chicago. I ain't going to miss Orange County — I feel like I'm going to die in this motherfucker."