As the rap game oscillates between lyrical professionalism and Tik-Tok meme-ability, a balance must be met for the rap game to continue on a steady path upward. Unfortunately, many young rap artists are leaning more towards Tik-Tok meme-ability, creating music that hovers above adolescent insecurities and just below outright stupidity. Let me be clear: RAP IS NOT TIK TOK. Rap is an extension of the Black community that, though it should be shared by all, does not belong to all. When rappers feed into the money-making machine that is Tik-Tok, they voluntarily give ownership to a community that fails to understand the diasporic energies that permeate the genre. It is then refreshing when a young artist like Baby Keem takes initiative and attempts to blend the new generation of rap with rap originalism. The Melodic Blue, the debut studio album from the California-born artist invents a space where witty lyricism, over-accentuated autotune, and Tik-Tok-made 808s can exist together. With no shortage of radio-made hits, neo-R&B arrangements, trap beats, and Pan-African beats, The Melodic Blue is a medley of experimentation the rap game so desperately needed. With so many young rap artists sounding the same, I find relief in listening to something, anything, that’s a little different.
I must be honest: I hadn’t listened to any of Baby Keem’s music until The Melodic Blue. Being from the East Coast, my exposure to West Coast flow and rhythm is small but, Baby Keem might have changed that exposure. The Melodic Blue is a great (though imperfect) introduction to Baby Keem and, in extension, to West Coast rap.
With no hesitation, Keem begins the album with three beautifully executed singles in “trademark USA”, “pink panties” and “scapegoats''. On “trademark USA”, the rapper displays his vocal dexterity by effortlessly jumping from flow to flow on what is an unbalanced musical beam. The song is riddled with beat changes, tempo switches, and stop-n-go transitions, to the effect, unfortunately, of dizzying listeners.
However, Keem’s sly adjustments from beat to beat, and the braggadocious manner in which he raps (a trait that shines throughout the album) compensates for the rapid changes that might normally turn listeners off. To those listeners, I would suggest patience: Keem is more than aware of the hodgepodge of sounds he creates, and although they may be overwhelming, they are not without cause. This is all a part of his experimentation with the modern state of rap and his vision of himself as a rapper, a tension that reaches its apex in “family ties,” the certain standout track on the album featuring Keem’s cousin and rap’s beloved son, Kendrick Lamar.
Long before the album’s release, many had speculated that Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar would work on a project together soon (many of these assumptions arose from Keem’s writing credits on the Black Panther soundtrack). The Californian cousin-cousin duo had long been teasing their collaboration一a tease which reached its climax when Baby Keem posted a good kid, m.A.A.d city-esque cover to promote the release of “family ties.”
From the onset, fans of rap music were ecstatic to hear the lyrical ingenuity of Lamar kin, for if there is anyone who could replace Lamar it would be someone LIKE him (or an exact copy of him because, let's be honest, the man is one-of-a-lifetime).
“Family ties” is undoubtedly my favorite track on the project. The prideful trumpets in the intro leaking into Keem’s boisterous first verse are exhilarating. When I hear that intro I feel as if I’m the greatest football player in the world, hiding in the tunnel just before the game, anticipating the anticipation of the crowd as I begin my march onto the field. Off rip, this track is absolutely heart-pounding. Keem does not disappoint with a verse reminiscent of Lamar’s intro on King Kunta: an absolutely cutthroat verse that is impressive in its lyrical construction, grittiness, and expressiveness. Baby Keem is confident in his verse. Though it lacks depth, the verse is more or less about Keem making money, soliciting women, and being a bigger better rapper, but it remains the apogee of Keem’s performativity on the album.
As he tends to do, Lamar never misses, and though his verse hits a wayside when he begins mimicking Hulk Hogan, he quickly recovers with an empathic end to his verse where he and Keem go bar-for-bar. The tug-and-pull at the end of this verse felt more or less like a baton pass, but I doubt Kendrick is willing to give up his throne so soon. With very few features on the album, Lamar’s verse feels paramount to the album’s success. The other two features on the project come from Travis Scott and Don Toliver on “durag activity”and “cocoa”; two solid features, however, the album could do without them.
Travis Scott’s hyper-adlib verse and annoyingly contiguous synths drown out much of the simplicity of “durag activity’s” beat. More detrimental to the song is its “radio-made” feel. As Scott tends to do, he makes hits, but not every hit, HITS. His use of the same 808s, synths, drums, and claps make for radio-pounding music. I’m sure “durag activity” is a nice bump every once in and while, it fails to live up to what could have been an absolute behemoth of collaboration had he and Keem kept it simple.
Don Toliver on “cocoa” is more reserved, singing and rapping within the style we are accustomed to him doing: soft tenor rap vocals, light autotune, and his unmistakable Texan delivery. A good feature, sure, but not one that raises the overall quality of the album.
Unfortunately, after “family ties”, the remainder of the album is subpar. The experimentation and creativity that marked the album’s first half are bogged down by largely unchanged samples, autotune, and the “radio-made” feel. I felt as though Keem began following a set blueprint after “family ties” to a pernicious effect; the second half of the project was not as well constructed as the first.
To Keem’s credit, he is constantly challenging himself with new flows, cadences, and accents, which, for the most part, are largely beneficial to the album. However, production fades a bit too close to those nagging mainstream sound kits. This, with much exaggeration to the phrase, TURNED ME OFF.
It is worth now explaining, for I’ve avoided doing so, what I mean when I say “radio-made feel” (it differs a bit from Tik Tok, though they are related). I believe that popular cultural trends can harm the flexibility of creativity. The popularity of a trend often creates rigidity in the creative sphere of artists: to stay relevant, artists will stave away their uniqueness for a more palatable version of whatever is “it” right now. Currently, Tik Tok and radio (I include Spotify and other popular music streaming services under this umbrella) have placed pressure on artists to create only what will get the most views or streams; believing that streams are all that matter, artists create only to satisfy the marketability of whatever fad is dominating public opinion. Artists like Drake, Kanye, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Dababy, and Roddy Rich have heavily shaped the current state of the rap game, and though their success is justified, it has come at the cost of other, less popular artists. As I am not an artist, I imagine it is difficult NOT to fall victim to popular trends or at least be influenced by them, as it seems Baby Keem has.
Even still, I highly recommend a thorough listen to the project. Where it fails, I see opportunities for Keem to develop new sounds which could invigorate the rap game. On top of that, Keem has already proved himself to be a talented lyricist. It is now incumbent upon him to use his creativity for writing in his production, and from there, I believe Keem could help push the rap game forward.