For a decade and a half, Houston’s Lil Keke represented the Southside lovely as one of the underground legend of DJ Screw‘s Screwed Up Click. His cassette tape classic “Pimp Tha Pen” remains an archetype in the sub-genre, as Keke became a regional superstar, arguably unknown outside of the Lonestar State. Some anticlimactic Koch releases surfaced, but it was not until Keke aligned with Northside’s Swishahouse that labels really saw the potential in the man prominently featured on albums from Bun B [click to read], Chamillionaire [click to read] and DJ DMD‘s famed “25 Lighters.” After an Asylum deal stalled in two years of waiting, Universal backs the pioneer with what, to many, makes his twelfth official album feel like a coming out party in Loved By Few, Hated By Many. But how much underground authenticity can transfer to such a release?
The fact that Keke uses an album title carried by fellow Texas icon Willie D is an ominous indication of the work’s contents. Although Chamillionaire and Paul Wall [click to read] were able to meet commercial appeal and their roots halfway, Keke struggles. A little bit senior and a lot more media shy, the veteran comes out with undeliverable crossover attempts like “Suga Daddy,” with a Pop chorus and “Let Me Ride” content. Likewise, “Phenomenal” takes a page from Plies [click to read] with the bold delivery in between R&B crooning, coming almost as a shock to anyone familiar with Keke’s career prior. Even “A Milli” heat-maker Bangladesh fails to bring Keke out of the water in “What’s It Made For,” another sexed-up serenade, that feels like an A&R department misstep.
In between the awkwardness, Keke sprinkles listeners with a more polished brand of what’s not only made and sustained him, but what made his Swishahouse arrival so welcoming. “I’m A G,” billed as a second single, uses outstanding Mr. Lee production with the Texas trademark vocal chorus, mortared by iron-clad storytelling of what’s made Keke so built to last in the game. The beat hardly cheats the rapper’s legacy, and his skills and image are not compromised in search of outsider acceptance. “Slab Holiday,” assisted by none other than Paul Wall‘s wife, is another image-driven ode to what fans are used to, on a grander scale of production of course. So goes an album, caught between what Keke fans know, and clearly the brand of southern rap that loyalists want to get away from.
Loved By Few, Hated By Many finds itself in a predicament. As we go past the era of going gold in Texas alone, rappers seek the out of region support needed to get recognition. Lil Keke does not find the means seen by UGK or Chamillionaire to do so. Instead the things that give this release its identity are those that have always worked, even if loved by few. With Slim Thug, Paul Wall and higher-end production, perhaps the label’s work lies in whether this new, slightly shocking side of Keke will be hated by many.