Baby Keem has been an intangible artist up until now. Granted, he's got a breakthrough mixtape (2019’s 'DIE FOR MY BITCH') and loads of projects buried in his past, but it's been a mystery as to why he has such strong affiliation with Kendrick Lamar's new PGLang label. What started as rumours and never escaped Keem turned out to be true – he is the cousin of Lamar, and therefore adopts all the pressures that come with being related to the rapper. Keem has kept his head down – seemingly trying to evade the trappings of nepotism – but on a debut with no less than three appearances from Lamar, the newbie maintains his role as the project’s defining voice.
It’s felt from the outside that Kendrick has been helicopter-parenting Keem, lending him the resources to make some of the best production and visuals for a freshman mixtape ever. Keem acknowledges this on ‘family ties’: “I’m grateful to Man-Man [Lamar’s nickname], he opened up doors”. However, when the two collide, Keem leads the way and pushes Lamar down new avenues, so much so that it would be no surprise if Kendrick’s upcoming album took influence from The Melodic Blue’s aesthetic. Again, the situation is not lost on Keem, as he exclaims on ‘range brothers’: “The shoes I fill are huge!”.
On his debut album, Baby Keem is continuing the mission of putting himself forward as the premier name in mosh pit rap. Keem’s delivery is bellowed from the nose and wet-through with autotune, but somehow sounds vigorously direct in practice. For the easiest examples to grab, go to the trembling Aztec beat of ‘cocoa’, or the almost poly-rhythmic banger ‘Booman’.
Even past the headline-grabbing event of ‘family ties’ (which marked Kendrick Lamar’s first verse since 2019), the track itself still feels colossal. The regal horns of the first beat settle the throne for King Kendrick later on, but Sire Keem still tirelessly attacks the track to put on a glorious show. Lamar, though, is everything the hype suggests. One can practically see him turning green with disgust as he's writing this verse, targeting anyone who doubted him such as the ‘overnight activists’. The hilarious ‘amazing, brother’ section is another voice in Lamar’s still-expanding library of them.
Nevertheless, Keem’s crateful of vocal styles surpasses even his cousin in numbers and variation. Equally, in the moments where he gets real, his regular inflexion is just as convincing. ‘scapegoats’ is a time-stopping interlude with white-robed background vocals and a manipulated chop of a serpentwithfeet song. Lodged in the middle of it, perhaps clashing too much with the sample vocals, Keem darts around subject matter in a tight verse, the highlight being when he neatly raps about brushing off the petty nonsense and staying focused on the long-term: “Cheap shots, let it rock, eye open, Fetty Wap”.
In stark contrast, many of his lyrical choices on the album do little to raise the roof, instead raising a multitude of questions. On every playback, “pussy tastes like tangerine” on ‘dirag activity’ still goes through me, and the amount of repetition employed in the verses leave the most thrill-seeking tracks with an awkward couple of seconds. Careful not to cringe at the entire line dedicated to “lit, lit, lit, lit” on ‘vent’, as well as the crustily dry beat cut-out on ‘cocoa’ which just repeat the very line Keem just said: “haha, you toxic”.
Still, these spots can be half forgiven in light of the beats here. The production is not only top-tier but remarkably individual – let’s not forget that Keem is a producer as much as a writer, and at 20 years old, there is a clear basis for what a ‘Baby Keem type beat’ sounds like. We’re talking pummeling, trilling kick drums, skeletal make-ups from the lack of an overbearing bassline and warbly synths that thankfully don’t stray into 80s territory.
The production flourishes are what make this album, the ghoulish little synths haunting ‘Durag Activity’, the crimson, Gesaffelstein-esque electro growls on ‘vent’. Not every track is a winner, though. ‘gorgeous’ and ‘south africa’ are as nondescript as they come on the record, the latter sounding like any number of middling rap singles one can find scrolling through the grey sludge of Worldstar Hip Hop.
Back to ‘durag activity’, the demented flow brought by Keem onto the single is oddly infectious, and the quick title-dropping hook does its job of sticking to the brain perfectly. It’s interesting that Travis Scott comes in and adds entire layers to the track with his performance, the man known for sounding like a deadman now bringing the most energy into the room. What’s more, the influence of Scott’s own work on Keem – the multi-part structures seen on Rodeo, and the breakneck beat switches on Astroworld – defines his debut. The shape of tracks tend to come out completely different to the way they came in, and a heavyweight example is on another collab with Kendrick Lamar.
‘range brothers’ progresses into a beat that could be the soundtrack to a majestic Lord of the Rings battle under grey thunderous skies. Either that or a beat that samples the Angry Birds theme song really well. Regardless, the two trade a back-and-forth that reaches the same velocity that Lamar and Jay Rock’s ‘Wow Freestyle’ did in 2018. Yet, another beat switch changes its course, barrelling off the edge of reason. This second part is the album’s most egregious point with its repetitions of ‘rollie gang, rollie gang, rollie gang’. Not to mention – “Top of the morning, top of the morning, top of the morning, top of the morning, top of the morning, top of the morning, top of the morning”. This unbelievable contribution by Lamar does zilch to energise the track more, but rather sucks the life out of it like the Scream Extractor from Monsters Inc.
There’s been a thick fog around who Keem is, as he has not really allowed himself to be vulnerable and flesh out his humanity, similar to Playboi Carti. The Melodic Blue penetrates that mystery with tracks that highlight a different hue. ‘scars’ is a real 808s & Heartbreaks moment in sepia tone, and the orange droplets of meditative keys on ‘lost souls’ set the scene for Keem searching for the one girl from the rest at a Vegas party. More so, ‘issues’ is even more delicate, as gauzy layers of piano back Keem as he sings to the moon about his family and woes under deep purple skies. He gives enough to keep zealots on the hook but is still aware to guard himself on his first album and not give everything away: “One day, I'll tell you how my life was unfortunate / For now, I'll tell you how fast these Porsches get” sums it up in a bar.
The amount of moments of contemplation away from the mosh pit benefits the listenability of the album, though its overall sequencing is blotchy and still more like a mixtape. For example, why do the cool, aquamarine tracks ‘first order of business’ and ‘16’ sit on either side of one of the most lyrically and sonically volcanic tracks on the album? That’s what keeps it from being something stellar, but as a debut showcase, it does the job of uncovering more of his spectrum.
Words: Nathan Evans // @nayfun_evans
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