Smartly capitalizing on his sudden wave of momentum, 20-year-old Baby Keem releases his debut studio album when interest in his work is at the highest – it dropped only a couple weeks after Keem appeared on tracks by both Kanye West and cousin Kendrick Lamar. Drawn to his eccentric vocal inflections, spastic style and outlandish, comedic bars, The Melodic Blue is a lot more of exactly what people were likely looking for. Keem runs through different voices and motifs as much as his world-famous cousin does, but instead of using them for character work and social commentary, Keem uses the unique talent for fun party tracks instead – think of him as a fusion of Lamar and Playboi Carti. Keem is also a producer, lending his beatmaking abilities to nearly every track here, which is all the more impressive because of how many beat switches there are. It’s all a little bit messy and undercooked, Keem throwing ideas at the wall that don’t always necessarily come together into something great, but that’s honestly part of the appeal. Keem is a new and exciting voice in the hip-hop landscape, and while this is far from a masterpiece, it shows that there might be one coming in the future with a little more practice.
As far as an introduction to Baby Keem’s artistry, there’s not much of a better one than opening track “trademark usa,” which runs through three beat switches and what seems like three or four different rappers on the track based on the many different approaches he takes. The track begins with a brief introspective intro, about the only time Keem is serious on the project, before dropping into a hard-hitting beat and triplet flows, a psychedelic James Blake-style transition, and finally switching up his flow with another bass-rattling beat interspersed with interludes from Latin-pop superstar Rosalia. Keem dominates the track from all angles with relentless flows, verging from a charged-up, excitable yelp to calmer, confident deliveries and even one in a growling lower register. He turns unexpected lines into anthemic hooks with the sheer power of his conviction. The following track “pink panties” immediately switches the vibe again as Keem transports us back to the early 2000s with a chorus that sounds like it could have been a prime 50 Cent track playing at the club – in reality, it’s sampled from lesser-known rapper Che Ecru. Dropping some zany punchlines, it quickly becomes clear that Keem is simply out to have fun and push the boundaries of the most goofy and strange material he can – something that, interestingly enough, is only exacerbated when he gets on tracks with his typically heady cousin. After another brief, slower-paced breather of an interlude, we’re dropped into “range brothers,” which is one of the most addictive tracks of the year simply because of how off-kilter it is. Over five minutes and two more beat-switches, Keem and Kendrick seemingly try to outdo each other in making the most bizarre track that still sounds fantastic – whether it’s Keem’s baby voice, Kendrick’s bug-eyed “top of the mornin” hook, or Keem over-enunciating everything – plus the highly percussive yet operatic beat is genuinely great without a gimmick.
Lamar and Keem trade bars again on single “family ties,” where Lamar brings back the technical flows he is known for to a huge degree with one of the year’s strongest verses. Still, he certainly doesn’t outshine his cousin, who introduces the track with a relentless, frenzied verse that spans two beats incredibly well. Keem’s many personalities do a lot of the work to carry things without any features, but the ones that do show up all make the most of it. Don Toliver appears on “cocoa,” but Keem still takes the hook and delivers once again on a raucous and catchy melody. Toliver leans into the weird as he opens his verse by taking his girl to Denny’s – he can’t quite match up, but he still fits right into Keem’s world with a solid verse, Keem returning to close out the track with some off-the-wall whistling in place of some lines. Single “durag activity” is one of the weaker tracks here – it’s one of Keem’s most “normal” performances – but Travis Scott still continues a strong run of features this year as he makes the beat his own. Lamar shows up briefly a final time on “vent,” an absolute rager where the cousins are at their most threatening with some percussive staccato flows over grinding guitars.
Sometimes a Baby Keem track can feel like a fragment of a larger idea that ends too quickly, but his style can complement the idea of jumping around with reckless abandon all the same. A brief track like “gorgeous” quickly gets in and out with a great hook and an innovative beat of cascading piano notes for Keem to drop a single verse over, transitioning into the more robust, catchier “south africa” – whether there’s a transition or a beat switch, we’re always just getting brief patches of all the many things Keem can – and dares – to try out, and it makes for an exhilarating palate of skills demonstrated by a breath of fresh air to the game. “south africa” might have the album’s best hook, as Keem deadpans along with the melody of the menacing bassy piano plunks that make up the beat before bringing the youthful barks back into his voice and running through a wide variety of flows and inflections that only make it all the more fun to rap along to. Keem shooting his voice into the stratosphere at the end of each line in the second verse is a simultaneously hilarious, ear-grabbing and memorable endeavour. The eccentric bangers keep coming late into the project, “booman” slowing things down with yet another new flow over a blaring trumpet loop and “first order of business” again shows Keem’s strengths as a producer with a futuristic synth pattern, even if his verses don’t quite match up energy-wise.
For all the ridiculous rap bangers here, the project is called The Melodic Blue for a reason as Keem does offer a couple tracks where he’s singing instead – many of which are clearly inspired by Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, right down to the track “scars” sampling the tribal percussion patterns from “Love Lockdown” in what is the best the project has to offer in the style, Keem sounding more emotional than ever as he questions the spiritual about why his life has been so difficult. While it’s clear that Keem did want to include a couple more meaningful tracks to him, he still brings some of his goofier techniques over that don’t always translate as well – though Keem does clearly have an ear for a hook, more melodic material simply represents an area that’s almost there and needs a little more development in his young career. “issues” is one that comes across as a sleepier passage in an album full of crazy thrills, Keem using a softer vocal and some wobbly Auto-Tuned falsetto backing vocals to address the complicated relationship with his mother. “lost souls,” as well, has an engaging instrumental of watery synths, but Keem’s whinier inflections hold him back as he tries out a legitimate R&B slow jam. The project concludes with the DJ Dahi-produced “16,” reminiscent of early Drake melodic hits as Keem displays his versatility again with a great straight-up pop song.
While it certainly won’t earn any points in the cohesion department, The Melodic Blue is easily one of the year’s most exciting debuts and should give Keem the fast-track to superstar status. Once he puts in a little more work and figures out ways to align his novel concepts every time, the game should be on serious watch.
Favourite Tracks: family ties, range brothers, south africa, trademark usa, scars
Least Favourite Track: issues