Inside a sweaty, over-capacity Brooklyn nightclub, ASAP Rocky stood near the back of the room and quietly surveyed the scene unfolding in front of him. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd was so packed that the emergency exits were blocked. Somewhere in a sea of limbs, Lil Dicky thrashed around in a mosh pit. Seriously.
It was November 17, 2019, and Baby Keem was in town to headline his first New York show. The small venue was crawling with journalists and industry types who had been hearing the same whispers for months: Was this teenage rapper from Las Vegas really the next big thing? Everyone was in the building that night to see if he could live up to the hype.
Playing up the drama of the moment, Baby Keem stared down the crowd with Playoff Bron meme intensity, nine months before the Lakers actually dismantled the Blazers in the bubble. Then, as the beat from Die For My Bitch standout “Moshpit” kicked in, he exploded into a barrage of high-pitched yelps.
“I am 50 Cent! I am 50 Cent!” he yelled. The room shook. Lil Dicky’s curly mop of hair bounced around in the pit. Somewhere, I imagine Curtis Jackson was proud. As the set went on, even the most uptight journalists and A&Rs in the crowd couldn’t help themselves from yelling along to each off-the-wall one-liner Keem barked into the mic.
“Baby Keem just humbled a model.”
He lived up to the hype.
For the next few months, the buzz around Baby Keem kept multiplying. Drake showed up to the Die For My Bitch tour stop in Toronto and J.I.D. was spotted in the crowd in Atlanta. By mid-December, Keem was sitting down for dinner with Jay-Z. And on Christmas Day, Drake enthusiastically told Rap Radar that Die For My Bitch was one of the two best albums of the year (alongside Young Thug’s So Much Fun).
There isn’t an emerging rapper on the planet who had a better end to 2019 than Baby Keem.
Baby Keem’s first few months of 2020 weren’t bad, either. In mid-January, he earned his first Billboard Hot 100 entry with “Orange Soda.” A week later, Die For My Bitch entered the Billboard 200 albums chart, six months after its release. And for a little extra intrigue sprinkled on top of it all, his name was in headlines because Twitter kept banning its users for quoting his lyrics. “When you come see the crib, you better die, hoe.”
On March 4, he tweeted, “Keem season.” The next day, he starred in a visual mission statement video for Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free’s mysterious new project, pgLang.
Keem, who is rumored to be Kendrick’s cousin, had spent the past couple years quietly working on Top Dawg Entertainment projects, earning songwriting and production credits on Kendrick’s Blank Panther: The Album, Schoolboy Q's Crash Talk, and Jay Rock's Redemption, among others. “[Dave Free and Kendrick are helping with] everything,” he later told Crack Magazine. “Me as a whole, Baby Keem the artist, Hykeem Carter. Everything, every aspect. They’re my guys, that’s my team. That’s my life.”
After paying his dues working behind the scenes with some of the biggest artists in the world, Die For My Bitch became a critical darling, and he seemed primed for a real coming out-party to a mainstream audience. A Baby Keem album rollout felt imminent. The hype was building every day.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Like the rest of the industry, Keem went quiet, only resurfacing for the occasional tweet about how he had “more stories to tell.” It’s rare to see a new artist catch lightning in a bottle like Keem did in late 2019, so there was some cause for concern when he completely hit the brakes and halted all momentum. When he returned, would he be met with the same level of buzz and anticipation? Or would he miss the window for his true breakout moment?
Last week, Baby Keem answered those questions. Following his appearance on XXL’s 2020 Freshman Class cover, he returned with two new songs and a music video.
On “Sons & Critics Freestyle,” Baby Keem talks as much shit as he can for three and a half minutes. Punching through the production with high-pitched vocals, he opens his first verse by plainly telling critics to “shut the fuck up” and boasts: “She on white, ’cause I energize her way too much.”
“This that raw and uncut, this that young Hykeem.”
Baby Keem’s music is remarkably blunt. As he told Complex last year, he’s repelled by quasi-intellectual posturing. “Don't talk fake deep,” he scolded. “You faking. You just want to seem smart. I don't like that. I hate fake smart. I like real smart.” Keem approaches his music the same way. Matter-of-factly delivering lines that are at times philosophical, but never convoluted, his message always cuts to the surface. He’s clever, without falling to the temptation of cramming unnecessary metaphors into each bar.
Leaning into his hidden-in-plain-sight writing style, Keem winks to internet rumors about being Kendrick Lamar’s cousin as he finishes the first verse by rapping, “My cousin elevator in his crib, woah, woah/Ho, my baby pictures probably on his fridgе, woah, woah.” No one talks shit like Baby Keem.
I don’t know what it’s like to be in the studio with Baby Keem, but I imagine he spends hours yelling outrageous one-liners at his recording engineer and repeating monosyllabic phrases until something sticks. How else would he think to overpronounciate fake laughter at the end of five consecutive bars on “Sons & Critics Freestyle”? “Ha-ha-ha!” How else would he have the courage to build an entire hook around “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho”?
At just 19 years old, Keem already has the confidence to take risks. His music is full of bizarre one-liners and catchy little moments that are more fun to yell along with each time you hear them. Naturally, he’s already finding success on TikTok, an app that rewards over-the-top lyrics that lend themselves to memes and narrative storytelling. Baby Keem is wise beyond his years and has proven himself capable of writing thought-provoking insights about the world, but that doesn’t mean he won’t also rhyme about dicks. He is still 19, after all.
Embedding each song with bite-sized quotables—“Baby Keem just humbled a model!”—he’s perfectly suited for the lyrics-as-Instagram-captions era we’re in today. On a song like “Sons & Critics Freestyle,” Keem doesn’t resort to a big catchy hook to make sure his voice gets stuck in your head all day. Instead, he plants at least a dozen sticky little one-liners throughout the song, knowing at least a few of them will connect.
On “Hooligan,” Keem shows growth. Again, he weaves caption-bait gems like “I drip in all black like an emo bitch“ with did-he-really-just-say-that bars like “Hе got to fuck and he got to fuck/So what is the use of my dick?” And he anchors the hook with another simple chant: “Fah-fah-fah, fah-fah-fah.” But this time, he presents his eccentricities in a more tight, easily-digestible way. There are no traditional melodic hooks here, but he makes sure every last part of his flow is catchy.
In his first in-depth interview, Keem told Complex that he used to hide his naturally high-pitched voice and force himself to rap in a low register. Then something clicked, and he figured out how to use his unique tone to his advantage. On “Hooligan,” his flow is the song’s biggest strength, which seems to be entirely by design. “I didn’t want to be like the best lyricist,” he explained last year. “I wanted to be the best: the king of flows.”
Like his cousin, Keem knows how to bend his eccentric sensibilities around a familiar framework. It’s innovative, edgy, and approachable all at once. On songs like “Honest” and “Apologize,” he’s shown he can write pop-leaning, arena-ready music, without sanding off his quirks and idiosyncrasies. And that’s exactly why he’s one of the most exciting new rappers in the world right now.
The most thrilling part of an artist’s career arc is the “making it” moment when they transform from a promising up-and-comer to a full-fledged star. Everything must be aligned and the artist needs to take full advantage of the moment. Today, everything is speeding up and this stage usually happens in a flash, giving only a select few an opportunity to actually see it unfold in real time. Because of the pandemic, though, Baby Keem’s window has been elongated. So if you weren’t on board March, you’ve had six extra months to get familiar.
Keem’s new songs “Hooligan” and “Sons & Critics Freestyle” were each released by Columbia Records and pgLang, hinting that a major label debut album is on the way. If he’s going to level up and capitalize on all the potential, the time is now.
It’s (finally) Baby Keem season. Make sure you’re paying attention.