“Top of the Morning”: Baby Keem’s Memorable Debut
Reading Time: 4 minutes
In the rap world, Baby Keem stands as an anomaly. He’s released music with some underground buzz for a few years, with his mixtapes “Sound of Bad Habit” (2018) and “DIE FOR MY [EXPLETIVE]” (2019) garnering some attention, but never landing him squarely in the mainstream. With hard-hitting trap beats and high-pitched nasal inflections, he crafted a style for himself that walks the line between obnoxious and charismatic. He found some TikTok success with his 2019 track “ORANGE SODA” from “DIE FOR MY [EXPLETIVE],” and piqued the interest of Kendrick Lamar fans after they discovered Keem had writing credits on the Black Panther soundtrack (it didn’t take long for them to find out that Keem is Lamar’s cousin).
Keem’s connection to Lamar’s fanbase has been equal parts a blessing and a curse: while the affiliation has created a lot of excitement around his music, Keem has faced scrutiny from Lamar fans for featuring lyrics that are “underdeveloped” in comparison to those of his cousin. Trying to create art under the shadow of one of the most highly-acclaimed artists of this generation has to be hard, but Keem remains unfazed. With his new long-awaited studio debut “The Melodic Blue,” Baby Keem embraces the nepotism with a few big-ticket features but continues to preserve and hone his unique sound.
The opener, “trademark usa” begins with a short grim verse from Keem supported by bending guitars and filtered drums before exploding into a driving, gritty banger. Keem raps like he’s delivering an impassioned sermon over synth basses and ominous droning flutes behind a thumping 808 pattern. The second verse is filled with some braggadocious quotes before a quick beat switch into another trap groove with a small contribution from Spanish singer Rosalía. The song is a lively start to the album, but the energy doesn’t stay as high with the club anthem “pink panties.” While Che Ecru’s chorus contribution is fun and Keem has some charming moments, the song just feels out of place and could easily be omitted, especially since the next cut “scapegoats,”—a slower and more confessional interlude with a chilling serpentwithfeet sample—feels much more cohesive in the grand scheme of the project. This is a frequent theme of the album: at several points, Keem begins to explore more conscious and meaningful content, but is quick the curtain forward and retreats back into his comfort zone of rapping about shallow, meaningless topics like cars, money, and girls.
“range brothers” is another cut that feels like a microcosm of the entire album with its zany trap production and boastful lyrics interspersed with some wise moments, especially in Kendrick’s verse where he talks about investing in one’s family and future. The track starts with an eerie flute instrumental and features Keem with some unusual intonations before triumphant violins come in for the second part. The beat is disorienting and strange with trippy 808s which lay the foundation for the Kendrick Lamar feature, who delivers as he always does. The track feels like a conversation between Keem and Lamar as they rap back and forth, discussing wealth and fame in the second section. Their voices complement each other well but still feel distinct, as do their perspectives with Lamar taking the role of a mentor to Keem. While the song seems lighthearted, there is an undercurrent of Keem’s troubled past that is never fully explored. It sounds like Keem is holding back—while he may be saving more for the future, right now it seems that he wants to be young and enjoy himself. He is clearly haunted by his past growing up in Section 8 Housing as seen in brief moments of reflection, but refuses to elaborate on those experiences, weakening the emotional impact of the album.
The next few tracks of the album blur as Keem shows off his ability to fit on any production style. “issues” offers a more somber “808s and Heartbreak” (2008) feel, layered with tasteful synth chords and echoey pianos. “gorgeous” has a slickly-produced dark piano beat and some good flows but is largely forgettable, with Keem bouncing between flows and intonation reminiscent of artists like Carti, Travis, and Drake.
“family ties” is another Kendrick Lamar-boasting highlight with a triumphant Wheezy-inspired horn section backing one of Keem’s most energetic verses in the album. While the vocal mixing on this track isn’t anything particularly innovative, Keem’s voice stands out with catchy flows, especially on the first beat switch with a relentless cadence. Keem puts out a solid verse, despite bearing the weight of having to go before Kendrick Lamar on a song. Lamar delivers his first verse in two years acting like he never left, followed by another switch into a menacing, distorted beat where he changes inflections and voices constantly. It’s incredibly enjoyable with Kendrick going into a Hulk Hogan flow saying his mental is, “amazing, brother.”
The album’s closing tracks are a mixed bag. “first order of business” is one of the more personal cuts on the project, where Keem discusses cutting out toxic people in his life and navigating relationships in the context of fame. “16” is the lowkey ending to the album with retro instrumentals and more melodic bars from Keem describing a failed relationship with a girl who came from poverty. Though “16” has more pop appeal than many of the tracks on the album, other tracks could have served as a better closer. It functions as another vulnerable track, but still remains hollow.
The album in general lacks a certain depth that would provide a better reason to root for Keem. “The Melodic Blue,” is a competent debut and cements Baby Keem as an artist to watch out for, but often seems underwritten, uninspired and pointless. Despite this, there is undeniable creativity at the base of the project and the ride listening through is enjoyable. Keem evidently wants to stay away from creating a narrative, though it’s entirely possible we could see more lyrical content from him—the line “who I made this tape for?/I tell the story two years later, for now, the case closed” from “scapegoats,” exemplifies his attitude. Chances are, we’ll likely be hearing a lot more from Baby Keem in the future. He doesn’t seem to feel tethered to his cousin’s sound: he’s creating a path of his own rather than following anyone else.