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Baby Keem is the next name in hip-hop you need to know

WORDS BY WILL BREWSTER

IN PARTNERSHIP WITH SONY MUSIC

With the release of his debut album The Melodic Blue, we trace the meteoric rise of young West Coast upstart Baby Keem.

At just 20 years old, Baby Keem might just be one of hip-hop’s most exciting emerging talents. He may lack the near-universal recognition that heavyweights like Drake and A$AP Rocky enjoy, but it’s arguable that few rappers have captured the collective attention of the rap world quite like Keem has over the past two years.

Born Hykeem Jamaal Carter Jr., Keem got his first big break into the music industry at the age of 17 after contributing to the Grammy Award-winning, Kendrick Lamar-helmed Black Panther soundtrack. Fans were instantly captivated (if not slightly perplexed) by the young artist’s production on the project, and suddenly, Baby Keem became the fixation of hip-hop fans across the world: who was he, where was he from, and most importantly, what was next for him?


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It didn’t take too long for news to come out that Baby Keem was none other than Kendrick Lamar’s own cousin. Once rap sleuths made the family connection between the two, the Keem hype raised nearly tenfold. However, Keem made it very clear early on that he wasn’t out to follow in the footsteps of his elder relative.

The 2018 release The Sound of Bad Habit saw the young Californian native eschew the socially conscious raps that made his cousin a star, instead opting to flex his melodic prowess across twelve sparse, self-produced trap instrumentals. For fans, the project proved to be a tantalising (if not slightly understated) mission statement, with the trunk-rattling bass and offbeat vocals of ‘Opinions’ and ‘Gang Activities’ serving a teaser of what to expect from Keem in the years to come.

It wasn’t until the following year in 2019 that Baby Keem really made his mark on the mainstream, producing tracks on Schoolboy Q’s Crash Talk and Beyonce’s Lion King soundtrack as well as releasing what many consider his breakthrough mixtape, Die for My Bitch. A free-tumbling 14-track affair that saw Keem dabble with elements of cloud rap, R&B and alt-rock, the project garnered mass acclaim from several hip-hop outlets, with many praising the young artist’s ambition and vocal talents.

Fuelled by the ensuing popularity of platinum-certified single ‘Orange Soda’ and pushed even further after ‘Honest’ became a sleeper hit on streaming services, Die for My Bitch asserted Keem as one of rap’s most promising young voices, bridging the gap between the likes of Playboi Carti and Kid Cudi to offer something wholly unique into the scene.

 

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After making a prominent appearance in the viral launch video for mysterious music services company pgLang, Keem would resurface once again in 2020 with two new tracks: ‘Sons & Critics Freestyle’ and ‘Hooligans’, an intricate trap masterpiece that served as one of his best works to date.

That same year, Keem was named in the XXL Freshman Class of 2020 and made a joint appearance alongside cousin Kendrick on the cover of i-D’s 40th Anniversary edition, while his casting in a recent Calvin Klein campaign only helped to expand his public profile further.

As the world began to gingerly reopen 12 months into the pandemic, Baby Keem chose to strike again, releasing ‘No Sense’ in March and following it up the next month with the colossal Travis Scott-assisted single ‘Durag Activity’. Accompanied by a brilliant music video directed by Eliel Ford, ‘Durag Activity’ impressed upon release and was immediately heralded as one of the year’s best hip-hop tracks, with Travis and Keem both delivering standout verses atop of the song’s skeletal trap instrumental.

It was shortly after ‘Durag Activity’ arrived to streaming services that Baby Keem announced the impending arrival of his debut album, The Melodic Blue. An incredibly apt name to accompany an artist of Keem’s ability, the hype behind the album began to snowball drastically when Kanye West, during one of his already infamous Donda live streams at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, premiered ‘Praise God’, a collaboration between himself, Keem and Travis Scott.

Constructed around a ghostly vocal loop and startling organ samples, ‘Praise God’ sees Keem outshine both Travis and Ye with his eccentric final verse, shouting out Australia’s own Tame Impala as he yelps over Kanye’s gospel-tinged production. Many considered ‘Praise God’ to be one of the highlights of Kanye’s first stream, and when the track arrived in its full form when Donda officially landed, it’s safe to say that fans went totally apeshit over it.

However, ‘Praise God’ would have nowhere near the effect that Baby Keem’s next release would. Not only did ‘Family Ties’ showcase two bumper verses from Keem, but it also marked the highly anticipated return of Kendrick Lamar, with hip-hop’s elder statesmen using his cousin’s track to deliver his first feature in over 18 months and herald his imminent comeback to the rap game. The impact was near instant, and as far as album teasers go, ‘Family Ties’ couldn’t have come any bigger.

The Melodic Blue is yet another indicator of just how big of a star Keem has grown to be. Each of its 16 tracks – 15 of which were produced by Keem himself – showcase his chops as a beatmaker, while the wild vocal patterns and eclectic flows scattered across the record help to assert his reputation as one of rap’s best young talents.

Opener ‘Trademark USA’ sets a staggering precedent for the record as Keem lets loose with his typically slippery vocal cadence, while wonderfully bizarre cameos from Kendrick on ‘Range Brothers’ and ‘Vent’ are guaranteed to grab the attention of hip-hop’s faithful.

Meanwhile, ’Lost Souls’ and ‘Pink Panties’ also serve to show off Keem’s R&B chops, while ‘First Order of Business’ and ‘Cocoa’ with Don Tolliver both bear all the hallmarks of a summertime hit. With The Melodic Blue, Baby Keem lives up to all the hype – you’d be amiss to not keep up with all the action. Do yourself a favour, and dive on in.

Listen to The Melodic Blue here.

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