Baby Keem raps in an exasperated rasp, with an abrupt rise in his tone, as if he were stunned by something he just recalled. That the Carson, California native has seen a lot in his 20 years is evident in each well-enunciated bar, which seems to boil down his distinctive worldview into bite-sized vignettes. On “Family Ties,” featuring his cousin, Kendrick Lamar, Keem details a murder on the way to a Popeyes (”Fuck around and bury two of them guys”) before flexing on a vacation to France (“I’m OD in Paris”) and leaving an exorbitant nest egg for his grandmother (”A million to grandma, who did I offend?”).
To be sure, there’s a trace of his Pulitzer-winning kin in his agile stop-and-go flow. And while those are pretty big shoes to fill, The Melodic Blue, Baby Keem’s scrappy debut makes it clear that this is, unquestionably, his narrative. Opener “Trademark USA,” finds him anticipating naysayers, asserting, confidently, over growling bass and blaring flatline-invoking bleeps, “I took the torch, I quit being nice/I took the torch, now I gotta fight.” That you won’t “little bro” him is as palpable as Keem’s conviction that he’s ready for prime time.
On “Gorgeous,” he seems to be already celebrating that achievement, though the specter of violence—like in some Gen Alpha version of a classic Hughes Brothers flick—is always lurking somewhere in the background. “Trophies hidin’ in the nosebleeds/Baby, get to know me, I got rich off no sleep,” he boasts. The track’s rumbling backdrop feels fit for a club where the bottles are being popped about as often as the gunshots (“Whole lotta murder when it drop/Get the sticks, get the mop”).
Much of Keem’s appeal lies in his adaptability, be it the triumphant Game 7 Championships brashness of the aforementioned “Family Ties,” or the reflective slow burn of “Issues,” this multifaceted freshman has a knack for hitting a plucky pocket as well as crafting a mellifluous hook. The latter song has him mourning loved ones (”Grandma and I missed you/You don’t know what we been through”) in a wounded, sing-songy tenor that works at your tear ducts, even as it looms like a luscious earworm.
Destined for heavy rotation, the Travis Scott-assisted “Durag Activity” sounds, paradoxically, as if it were tailor-made for venues with strict dress codes. The dull 808 thud and tastefully spare synths are offset by Keem’s wry depictions of a local woman enthralled by his unconcealed firearm (”Freak bitch keep starin’ at the Draco”), and the prospect of getting fellatio before he gets his hair done (”Give me top and braid my hair”). Whether satire or social commentary, the song playfully, though not crassly, pinpoints the contradictory nature of so many rap hits by simply describing just another day around the way.
While the generic “…Cocoa,” with its late-to-the-party references to OnlyFans, falls flat, the buoyant, Bēkon-produced “South Africa” just about summarizes Keem’s mischievous expansiveness. Here, lyrics about impromptu flights to the former apartheid nation share the same psychic space with warnings against tap water as a cause of diabetes, as well as characterizations of money as the root of violence. If “South Africa” doesn’t exactly hint at Pan-Africanism, it’s at least a reminder of the complicated core of 21st century Blackness on both continents.
Centering this impressive project is “Scapegoats,” with its angelic chorus by mystic crooner, serpentwithfeet. It’s perhaps Baby Keem’s most poignant and expressive lyrical display. Over the somber, a capella barbershop-chorus bop, he raps, “One day, I’ll tell you how my life was unfortunate/For now, I’ll tell you how fast these Porsches get.” Life is a bitch, but Baby Keem won’t let it kill his vibe.