Baby Keem impresses with debut album ‘The Melodic Blue’

Photo courtesy of Srose763, via Wikimedia Commons

What sounds come to mind when you think of Baby Keem? Is it the smooth, confident voice he started out with on his breakout hit, “Orange Soda”? Is it the reserved, contemplative sound in tracks like “first order of business”? Or is it something in the middle—the quiet yet boastful tones of “durag activity,” perhaps?

If one is hoping to walk away from “The Melodic Blue” with an easily digestible understanding of Baby Keem, they will be sorely disappointed. He does not distill himself that explicitly. He slides effortlessly from hard trap beats to pared-down flows, even belting into song from time to time. He reveals his versatility from the very beginning with “trademark usa,” which changes from drowned-out beats and barely audible synths to an angry trap beat. The lyrics are similarly dichotomous: “What’s next? War and turbulence, prayin’ on this plane/ Success, got a taste of it, never was the same/ Trademark on that pussy, trademarkin’ my brand-new bitch.”

“Trademark usa” is not an exception to the rule; if a song on Keem’s album is longer than three minutes, it usually switches its tempo, its energy—pretty much everything about it—at some point in its runtime. This creates a beautiful, manic energy, but also leads to some mismatches in tone: “range brothers” shifts from earnest come-up rapping to a bizarre comedic bent that features Keem’s mentor and older cousin Kendrick Lamar spouting hilarious ad libs like “Top of the mornin” and “We’re not the Waynes!” Let me be clear: I love the last minute of “range brothers.” It made me laugh out loud. But the first four minutes are essentially an entirely different song.

It’s worth noting that I’m a sucker for trap, which makes me the prime demographic for Keem’s production style. That being said, one should be able to enjoy the more refined beats of “The Melodic Blue” even if they aren’t a fan of his earlier, semi-amateur backing tracks. PgLang, the enigmatic label headed by Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free, certainly influenced production, but the polished tracks are also a sign of the rapper’s growing maturity.

That maturity, of course, seeps into the tracks Keem has chosen to include in “The Melodic Blue.” Songs like “issues” and “first order of business” spring to mind as compelling peeks into Keem’s life outside of the studio. They are genuine without feeling melodramatic, which is a difficult line to toe. Though I will say songs like “scars” lose their emotional punch when raps about OnlyFans precede them by two tracks.

Thankfully, Keem does not fall victim to the slow-sad-song-followed-by-fast-flashy-song mentality that befalls so many young artists. “family ties” (the best song on the project) functions as both a club banger and a vehicle for Keem’s personal story. “I was seein’ double in the projects/ Mad at myself when I put it to the side/ Mama had to cater for the coupe/ That we rode after school on the way to Popeyes.”

Lamar also reappears on “family ties” and “range brothers,” and as an uncredited voice on “vent.” “family ties” marks one of Lamar’s first projects since 2017’s “Damn” and 2018’s “Black Panther: the Album.” Unsurprisingly, he steals the show. What is surprising is that Keem keeps up. His opening verse is one of the best of the album and his career. The fact that the greatest rapper of all time only barely outshines him is a testament to Keem’s talent as a performer.

In fact, Keem’s individual performance almost never falters; he never has a particularly bad verse or track. The problems arise in regard to organization, however. For example, “scapegoats” feels like it was originally the intro, or an idea for one, but instead it’s stuck awkwardly between two high-energy tracks. Perhaps Keem tried to experiment with the idea of an interlude like his older cousin did in “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but it just doesn’t hit in the way he wants it to. Similarly, “16” feels too half-baked to be a proper ending to an album full of highs. And, as previously mentioned, boastful melodies undercut the heartfelt songs about Keem’s inner mindset.

“The Melodic Blue” has been described as an ambitious first album, which would be a trite observation if it weren’t so true. Keem is far reaching here, experimenting with different samples and beats like a kid in a candy store. Do some of these long shots miss? Of course they do. But if someone can produce an album this good at only 20 years old, we ought to cut them a little slack. I couldn’t fit Keem’s sound into one box, but I like what I hear in “The Melodic Blue.” Hopefully, Baby Keem keeps up the same frenetic energy that got him here.

 

7.5/10

Favorite tracks: “family ties,” “durag activity,” “south africa”

Least favorite track: “scars”

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