Baby Keem Makes His Move
In the movie Home Alone, an eight-year-old kid turns his house into a nightmare hellscape of inhuman-torture booby traps. This requires serious suspension of disbelief. If you’re a kid watching Home Alone, it’s a fantasy. If you’re an adult, you can’t help but notice that the booby traps are the work of set designers, stunt teams, and special-effects people. Kids can’t do all that on their own. Baby Keem’s whole story is a bit like that.
Baby Keem will turn 21 next month. Keem came from Las Vegas, a place that has never produced a national rapper of any note, and yet Keem seemed to become omnipresent while he was still a literal child. For the longest time, Baby Keem had a permanent-XXL-Freshman vibe. He released his first two mixtapes when he was 18 — the first just a few days after his birthday — and he was already working with big producers like Cardo. Keem’s whole aesthetic was clearly the work of design professionals, and the young man definitely had connections. Keem scored writing and production credits on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther album and Beyoncé’s Lion King album. Shia LaBoeuf directed one of his first videos. It all seemed like a bit much.
It seemed like a bit much because it was a bit much. Baby Keem came out of the gate with a huge push. For a while, it was just a rumor that Keem and Kendrick Lamar were related. Now, we know that they’re cousins, and we know that Kendrick has made a project out of breaking Keem. On paper, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Keem has talent, as both a rapper and a producer, and his skills seem to fit this moment. Keem has clearly learned a lot from Kendrick, but he also carries the influence of the blurry-eyed party-rap stars who came up after Kendrick. If you could combine Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, resolving the “Goosebumps” duality into one person, then that person would probably sound a lot like Baby Keem. This seems like a license to print money.
The problem, at least up until now, is that Baby Keem has come off like a thing being forced upon the world. There are many, many routes for rappers to find fame, but those routes usually involve developing grassroots, ground-up audiences. Maybe Keem has done this, but from where I’m sitting, Keem’s rise mostly seems to involve early endorsements from celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Tyler, The Creator. In an early Complex interview, Keem said that he was surprised by all that, but it’s a little too easy to imagine the backroom deals that led to those seemingly spontaneous come-up moments. On top of that, Keem never seemed like a terribly interesting artist. There was no one particular thing that set him apart.
Before this year, Keem’s one moment of large-scale connection was the insidiously catchy 2019 single “Orange Soda.” With its music-box beat and its gooey smears of melody, “Orange Soda” sounds like a contemplative song, but that’s not what it is. Instead, it’s an ignorant anthem, a stupid and fun singalong that succeeds in all the places where a stupid and fun singalong should succeed. “Orange Soda” only barely grazed the bottom of the Hot 100, but it lingered forever. Last year, my kids were happily chanting along with the hook: “Lil bitch, shut the fuck up/ Tell your best friend shut the fuck up.” This made me feel like a terrible parent, but I got it. “Orange Soda” demands that kind of involvement. Until recently, it was the one Keem track that earned that kind of attention. The rap landscape is an increasingly crowded place, and even one hot song like “Orange Soda” wasn’t enough to make Keem pop. He needed an identity.
These days, Baby Keem has an identity. His identity is that he’s Kendrick Lamar’s cousin. When Kendrick launched his new label/management company situation pgLang last year, Baby Keem was a big part of the announcement. A couple of weeks ago, when Kendrick made his big return to rapping and to competing on the field of rap-overlord status, he did it on the Baby Keem single “Family Ties.” The same weekend, Kanye West released Donda, and it featured Keem on the song “Praise God.” I don’t know whether Kendrick had a hand in securing a Donda spot for Keem, but Keem makes sense on circa-now Kanye production, and he rapped hard on “Praise God.” He rapped hard on “Family Ties,” too, ramping up his intensity at the exact right moment.
Those two collaborations combined to crank Keem’s already-huge hype up to insane levels. Shortly thereafter, Keem announced his official debut album The Melodic Blue. It’s here now. Baby Keem has officially entered the playing field. The whole rollout for The Melodic Blue, with its carefully deployed Kendrick Lamar appearances and its eyeball-grabbing music videos and its carefully manicured aesthetic, is the best kind of coming-out party that any new artist could possibly hope to have in 2021. But is The Melodic Blue a good album? I’m not sure. I’m still figuring it out.
The Melodic Blue is definitely not a bad album. Its production, much of it from Keem himself, is sharp and hard and spacious, and Keem knows his way around a hook. His delivery, a squeaky take in Kendrick Lamar’s funny-voice expressionism, is instantly recognizable. Keem has clearly internalized the past decade-plus of rap language, taking inspiration and ideas from the rappers who inspire him. 808s & Heartbreak would be a clear touchpoint even if Keem didn’t sample the thunderous “Love Lockdown” drumline. Sometimes, Keem taps into the instinctive melodic murmur of Kid Cudi. Sometimes, his high-pitched baby-gibber goes beyond the Playboi Carti level and into 645AR territory. A track like “South Africa,” with its irresistible sing-chant hook, makes for good get-faded music, and that’s a big part of Keem’s appeal. In his best moments, though, Keem can also get tender and vulnerable. On “Issues,” for instance, he quietly pleads for his mother to overcome her demons, and it’s pretty powerful.
But Baby Keem is not Kendrick Lamar, and he’s not especially interested in taking us through the darker corners of his mind. Instead, he’s making turn-up music, throwing his goofy-ass voice at beats in the most interesting ways that he can think to throw it. Keem has said in the past that he’s more concerned with flow than with actual lyrics, and it shows. Keem’s most quotable lines are the really obnoxious ones, like the one where he says he’ll fly to Paris just for an Instagram caption, or the one where he invites you to inspect his dickprint in his Margiela sweatpants, or the one where he says your pussy tastes like soul food and that’s why you’re his go-to. On “Scapegoats,” Keem says, “One day, I’ll tell you how my life was unfortunate/ For now, I’ll tell you how fast these Porsches get.” That’s practically his mission statement. Right now, Keem his having fun. Later on, if he feels like it, maybe he’ll let us in.
That, in itself, is not a problem. Rap music should be fun, at least part of the time, and Baby Keem doesn’t owe us anything. But Baby Keem is coming up alongside Kendrick Lamar, a singular artist whose deepest, darkest internal monologues can still shake arenas. Kendrick pops up a few times on The Melodic Blue, and he’s always in playfully bugged-out mode. On “Range Brothers,” for instance, Kendrick yells the phrase “top o’ the morning” over and over, sounding a little more unhinged and offbeat each time. It’s probably the single most memorable moment on all of The Melodic Blue. When your big cousin effortlessly overshadows your entire album just by yelling those four words a bunch of times, then you’ve got a problem on your hands. Maybe Baby Keem should work on building some of those booby traps himself. Right now, it’s a little too easy to see the machine working behind him.
1. Fivio Foreign – “Story Time”
Last year, there were a lot of internet jokes about Fivio Foreign lying about his age, presenting himself as being younger than he actually is. (Lots of rappers lie about their ages; it’s not just him.) But honestly, Fivio’s age is an asset. He’s a Brooklyn drill rapper in his early thirties, which means he’s young enough to know how to navigate jittery bass-wobbles and old enough to put energy into certain fundamental rap values. Fivio arguably had the single best verse on Donda, and now he’s following that with this, a breathless prison-life narrative that he renders with depth and focus. I didn’t see this coming, but Fivio might fuck around and become a major figure.
2. Freddie Gibbs – “Vice Lord Poetry”
Freddie Gibbs is like a rap game Colin Farrell or Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s a born character actor who looks like a star. Every once in a while, though, Gibbs gets the idea that he should be a leading man, even though his breathless in-the-pocket rumble is better-suited to thriving in the underground for years on end. Those moments can be electrifying — like here, where Gibbs takes a offense at a Kendrick Lamar line that clearly wasn’t meant for him and where he then hijacks a brand-new Drake beat to show what he can do. He can do a lot.
3. Bronze Nazareth – “The Precipice”
In the past year, Roc Marciano has produced entire albums for Stove God Cooks and Flee Lord, as well as himself. Now, he’s apparently made a whole new one with Bronze Nazareth, and “The Precipice” is a proof that this is a good idea, if only because it’s got people like me paying a lot more attention to Bronze Nazareth. And Bronze Nazareth can rap: “Wiskin’ that gelato/ Smoke cloud, Kilimanjaro/ Slugs fly thru your pumpkin top, sleepy hollows!”
4. Big Yavo – “HIM”
That slow-motion guitar line was already hard before Birmingham, Alabama’s Big Yavo started bellowing over it. When Yavo shows up, he sounds like a star.
5. Duke Deuce – “WTF!”
“What the fuck?” It’s a question with no answer. Duke Deuce isn’t looking for an answer. He just wants to ask the question again and again, in increasingly entertaining and ridiculous ways. I hope he never stops.