Baby Keem – ‘The Melodic Blue’ review: Kendrick’s protege forges his own path on exhilarating debut

Rising star shows his versatility and wide-ranging sound on confident, mostly self-produced project

After a few patient years showing promise, it feels like a prime moment for Baby Keem. Not only did the rising star recently turn heads with a standout feature on Kanye West’s ‘DONDA’, but new collaborations with his rumoured cousin – none other than one Kendrick Lamar – comes precisely at a time when the furore for a new King Kenny album reaches a fever-pitch.

On ‘Praise God’ from ‘DONDA’, Keem showed he knows exactly how to take his moment. The California-born, Las Vegas-raised 20 year-old’s verse veered between ad-lib trap, cocky mile-a-minute bars, a rogue Tame Impala reference and, at one point, the autotuned experimental sound of ‘squeak-rap’ pioneer 645AR. This kind of free-wheeling ethos is one that flows throughout Keem’s debut studio full-length ‘The Melodic Blue’ as a whole.

‘The Melodic Blue’ follows a few years of Keem’s talents bubbling ever so slightly under the surface. He’s produced songs for ScHoolboy Q, the Black Panther soundtrack and Beyoncé and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Polo G, Lil Tjay and 24kGoldn on the 2020 XXL Freshman list, as well as featuring in the NME 100. He’s achieved a breakout viral hit in the form of ‘Orange Soda’, an infectious highlight from his ‘Die for My Bitch’ mixtape that became a sleeper smash months after its release. And now, he can count LeBron James as a fan: that well-trusted modern marker of rap cred.

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On ‘The Melodic Blue’, Keem does much to show what all the hype has been about, showcasing his wide-ranging talents over the 16-track release. Some may see it as a lack of cohesion, but he record constantly sees Keem morph between modes, moods and styles; he’s almost impossible to predict or second-guess.

Opener ‘trademark usa’ gives us a taster of what to expect. Kicking off with an reflective spoken-word intro (“Time pass and we move on, nobody says shit / How I’m supposed to act when my morals ain’t respected?”), the track then launches into rowdy trap terrain before shifting things with another beat switch and intoxicating Rosalía hook.

One minute on ‘The Melodic Blue’ Keem will be serving up a breezy club bangers like ‘pink panties’, referencing Only Fans (as on the Don Toliver-aided belter ‘cocoa’), or delivering silly one-liners like “Cheap shots, let it rock, eye open, Fetty Wap” (from ‘scapegoats’). The next he’ll be in full boast mode, like on ‘vent’, or when he’s proclaiming with swagger on ‘booman’: “I’m sexy and blessed”.

However, these moments are frequently juxtaposed by those where Keem demonstrates restraint. On ‘issues’, a minimal and melodic autotuned number, Keem ruminates: “I can’t go ghost, I face demons / Don’t let it defeat you, all in my hands”. Elsewhere he evokes ‘808s & Heartbreak’-era Kanye on low-key highlight ‘gorgeous’, while ‘scars’ features what may or may not be a sample of ‘Love Lockdown’.

All but one of the album’s tracks feature production credits for Keem, while two tracks are solely produced by the artist himself. The album delivers several exhilarating moments sonically, from jarring piano on ‘south africa’ and the sampling of a dial-up tone on ‘cocoa’ to grand orchestral strings on ‘range brothers’ and soaring synths on cinematic closer ‘16’. We’re even treated to a warped sample of serpentwithfeet’s ‘Redemption’ on ‘scapegoats’, which evokes ‘CMYK’-era James Blake (who, coincidentally, appears uncredited on ’16’).

As you might expect, Kendrick’s presence is acutely felt on the project. Lamar plays starring roles on two of the album’s tracks (‘family ties’, ‘range brothers’) and contributes an uncredited chorus and outro to a third (‘vent’). Occasionally, Keem allows himself to be eclipsed by his featured guests – leaning perhaps too much into Travis Scott’s signature sound on ‘durag activity’ and (quite understandably) being overshadowed by Kendrick on ‘family ties’.

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While many have fired accusations of nepotism towards Keem during his early rise, it’s heartening to see him not use his mentor as too much of a crutch on ‘The Melodic Blue’. He doesn’t try to escape Kendrick’s influence either, openly admitting on ‘range brothers’ that “the shoes I fill are huge,” while on ‘family ties’ he says he’s grateful that Lamar “opened up doors” for him.

Which of the many styles Keem decides to make his own in the future, is anyone’s guess, but on this occasion, ‘The Melodic Blue’ offers a confident and fully-realised project, one that shows that he continues to be difficult to pigeonhole.

Details

  • Release date: September 10
  • Record label: pgLang
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