At one point, it felt like Bang 3, Chief Keef’s oft-delayed, one-time major label follow-up to 2012’s Finally Rich, would never happen. There were countless release dates and when Keef was inevitably released from his record deal with Interscope in October, it seemed like the album would be permanently shelved; trapped deep in label vaults remembered only through snippets on Keef’s Instagram. Bang 3 was initially set for a March release last year, but as time passed, it slowly seemed less and less likely that it’d ever see daylight. In its stead came three new mixtapes through  Big Gucci Sosa (with an incarcerated Gucci Mane), a sequel to Back from the Dead, Sorry 4 the Weight (a play on Lil Wayne’s Sorry 4 the Wait series) and Nobody, an indie rap album that started off a part of Bang 3 before becoming its own entity. Nobody was Chief Keef’s abstract zenith, the point where his recent tinkering and toying produced something both weird and accessible. Since then, the Chicago rapper/producer has been constantly shifting and growing.

When Keef announced in late June he’d signed to Greek billionaire Alki David, creator of the web TV provider FilmOn, and that Bang 3 was back on, it seemed feasible again for the first time in over a year. The album’s single, “Ain’t Missing You,” a hick-hop homage to Keef’s fallen cousin, Big Glo, was then released in its place July 3, and it was pushed back once more. But, in an ironic ending to the longstanding Bang 3 saga, the album leaked two weeks early of its final official date and was uploaded to user-friendly streaming provider Audiomack. It’s impossible to say whether or not this Bang 3 is the same Bang 3 initially scheduled for release on Interscope last year. But, the liberation of any working project under the title feels like a win for Keef fans.

Chief Keef, the first artist signed during the major label Chicago gold rush, was once on pace to become one of the next big rap stars. His trajectory changed when lean addiction and poor mixing yielded Bang 2 and Almighty So in 2013; two grating, garbled projects that derailed his buzz and further alienated casual listeners with a foray into strange synth production and more eclectic off-the-wall sound last year. Over time, there were fewer beats from powerhouse wunderkind Young Chop, fewer appearances from former GBE rappers like Lil Reese, Fredo Santana, and SD, more credits for Glo Gang Productions and Chop Squad DJ and more collaborations with…Andy Milonakis. His dive into abstraction made him commercial kryptonite. Still, throughout the shift, there have been glimpses of what makes Keef a great artist and what made his early work so potent. Bang 3 isn’t precisely a return to Finally Rich form as that version of Sosa may be long gone but,  it is the closest he’s gotten in his continuing journey of wide-ranging sonic discovery. It isn’t Chief Keef at his best or even his most interesting; it’s Keef at his most pliable.

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Keef has covered a broad (and peculiar) spectrum of sound in a relatively short time. He refuses to stay in the same place for long and Bang 3 plays like a sampler of various Keef iterations; from “Love Sosa” to “Faneto” to “Nobody.” Songs like “Unstoppable” and “Pick One” harken back to his drill roots. On the latter, he mumbles right into a thumping 808 bass. The cluttered, but captivating “Facts,” produced by GGP, would fit right in with the unstable production on Back from the Dead 2. This adds seemingly thoughtless but careful schemes like, “I ain’t gotta wait in line, the doorman was waiting for me/ Told that bitch you wasting time/ All that talking ain’t saying nothing/ ‘Aye holmes, why you got a 9?’/ All that talk, ain’t spraying nothing/ Bitch told me I blow her mind/ She say she can’t wait to touch me.” Bang 3 closer, “Green Light,” layers complex drum sequences with one of Keef’s now-signature auto-tune-coated wails.
Bang 3 is most absorbing and most impactful when it plays to Keef’s strengths: his erratic but effective use of melody and his near perfect synchronization with vibrations. On the eerie, Mac Miller-assisted “I Just Wanna,” his wrenching vocals smear over the crawling production, which shifts back and forth from a haunting piano to a protruding accordion chirp. If any recent Keef song sounds like it’d land on a Finally Rich redux, it’s the Young Chop and Chop Squad DJ-produced “Yes,” which finds the rapper mashing through verse with a growl before turning on a dime to lay bawling falsetto ad-libs. It’s mosh ready. But, the song most representative of where Chief Keef should be headed is clear standout, “Singing To The Cheese,” which eschews normal time in favor of Keef’s abstract arrangements without unraveling; moving forward while also moving sideways. It’s a reminder of everything Chief Keef has been and everything he can be.