‘The Melodic Blue’: The Absurd Hues of Baby Keem

By Brian Li, age 17, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Plainsboro, N.J.

Off-kilter drum sequencing, bizarre inflections amplified with ingenious uses of Auto-Tune, ridiculous lines about “diabetes in a jar,” and haunting chants over ethereal chords — all actors forming the mesmerizing cacophony that is California rapper Hykeem Jamaal Carter Jr.’s debut album “The Melodic Blue.” More often recognized as Kendrick Lamar’s cousin, Baby Keem has nonetheless carved his own path combining the potent delivery and the budding lyrical chops of his elder cousin with experimental trap beats and an eccentricity that reflects the eclectic and wild spirit of Gen Z. This album is a pivotal leap from Keem simply making social media hits to becoming a more fully-fledged creative, and he sticks the landing.

“Trademark USA” begins with a poignant verse pondering success and a distant relationship over a spacey instrumental, and then abruptly switches to Keem unwaveringly delivering bar after bar over a whining, warbling trap beat — an invigorating start emblematic of the album to come. On this track, as well as the incensed “Vent” and the jarring “Cocoa,” Keem’s yelps, veering flows and instrumental experiments come to fruition in a wonderfully energetic form. His manipulated vocals — contorting, straining as a synthesizer of their own — are refreshing in an often homogeneous hip-hop landscape, and simply make for a fun listen.

Keem’s unique compositions and sometimes unhinged rapping may turn off so-called “hip-hop purists,” but they are what gives this album character. “Range Brothers” features three beat switches, with each leg of the track as beautifully absurd as the last. Punchy drums feel offbeat with pauses punctuated by Keem’s staccato delivery, and intertwined vocal and string samples construct a grandiose stage. Keem’s Auto-Tune-drenched droning that he “needs a girlfriend” is ludicrous, but such moments make the album memorable in all of its confusing glory.

Even with these idiosyncrasies, Keem is capable of writing the melancholy, introspective tracks that the name “The Melodic Blue” implies. “Issues” is a somber reflection on family life torn apart by poverty and addiction over sleepy chimes, and “Scars” is a pulsating anthem with a truly heart-wrenching refrain: “I ask God / Why this life you gave so hard? / Why all the choices that I make leave me with scars?” The modulating synths and crooning vocals on “16” are similarly evocative.

With a clashing musical menagerie just a track away from atmospheric pianos that leave listeners contemplating life, this album is a variety of dissonant shades, yet they all gleam blue on Keem’s canvas. Yes, some of the production is rough around the edges, some of the lyrics are outright nonsensical (perhaps lovably so), and some of the album feels disorienting, but Baby Keem’s eccentric and unbridled creativity ultimately triumphs in the vivid sonic journey that is “The Melodic Blue.”