Design by Madison Grosvenor

Baby Keem seems to have appeared out of thin air. Gaining his first songwriting credit on Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack for the “Black Panther” movie, Keem quickly saw himself at the center of many high-profile studios. The then 17-year-old would later go on to collaborate with high-level producer Cardo for his mixtape Die for My Bitch.

Although Keem was noted for his unique nasally vocal style and catchy trap beats, the reason why the scruffy teenager from Vegas was let into every studio in the country remained a mystery.

That was until the first single off of his debut studio album, The Melodic Blue,family ties,” was dropped earlier this year. 

Sporting cover art similar to Lamar’s sophomore album good kid m.A.A.d city, “family ties” features an old family photo of Lamar and Keem. Perhaps Keem’s status as Lamar’s cousin allowed him to benefit from slight nepotism, but the raw talent Keem displays on the single demonstrates that he’s more than Kendrick’s “little coz.”

In a year already saturated with great hip-hop releases, “family ties” is refreshing. The sophisticated beat — twisting and turning through multiple tongue-tied rhymes — features Keem rapping at his best. The single highlights Keem’s ambition, which is amplified by the legendary Lamar’s backup vocals. Further, this track demonstrates the pair’s strong chemistry as the two bounce off each other while experimenting with vocal styles and wordplay.   

In total, three tracks on The Melodic Blue feature vocals from Lamar. “range brothers” relies heavily on Kendrick’s bars and is similar to “family ties” in its exploration of lyrical and musical themes. One of Kendrick’s verses on this track repeatedly over-articulates the phrase “top of the mornin’,” and quickly became a viral TikTok dance — a testament to the genuine humor Kendrick brings to the record. 

However, Keem does not merely depend on Kendrick as a crutch to build his record. Tracks such as “booman” and the album’s stellar opening track “trademark usa” showcase unique, lavish production paired with a distinctive vocal delivery on Keem’s part. It seems the artist has truly found a voice for himself on this record and has carved out an interesting niche among the rap community. 

When Baby Keem is in his own lane, The Melodic Blue excels; however, when Keem fails to commit to his sound, the album succumbs to mediocrity. Although this single was hyped-up leading up to the album’s release, “durag activity” is perhaps the weakest song in the album’s discography. The overall flow of the track is uninspired, and the feature from Travis Scott feels phoned-in. Other tracks, “pink panties” and “south africa,” aren’t necessarily bad trap tunes but lack originality and pale in comparison when played alongside the album’s more ambitious beats. 

While Keem certainty presents a unique vocal delivery and production style on The Melodic Blue, the rapper’s lyricism is severely lacking. He clearly has more to talk about than most 20-year-olds, which makes his choice to rap tired themes of money and women resonate as disingenuous. It is frustrating to hear Keem allude to deeper meanings or overarching themes throughout the record, only for these flirtations with significance to end up as surface-level mentions.  

Despite its faults, The Melodic Blue is a strong entrance for Baby Keem. At its best, it showcases a strong newcomer ambitiously advancing the trends of modern hip-hop.

Although Keem has just arrived on the scene, it’s clear he’s here to stay and make some waves in the industry. He may have been handed his opportunity on a silver platter, but he has the creative hunger of an artist who knows they are on top of their craft. Keem’s quickly-found popularity and novel sound almost assure he will be the vanguard for the next generation of hip-hop. 

Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at kbartol@umich.edu.