On his breakout mixtape, 2019’s Die for My Bitch, rapper-producer Baby Keem chants “I am 50 Cent” over and over in an almost-monotone fashion, bringing in the disorienting beat-switch on “MOSHPIT.” Though he claims to have been “just randomly saying it,” in a Complex interview after the mixtape’s release, his references and similarities to the G-Unit founder don’t end there.
The music video for “Gang Activities,” off of 2018’s The Sound of Bad Habit, pays homage to the “In Da Club” video, featuring shots of Keem hanging upside down from a telephone pole. On his latest release, The Melodic Blue, Keem samples Che Ecru’s “Fuck Instagram,” targeting a phrase where the Boston artist slips into a slurred, snappy melody reminiscent of Curtis Jackson’s choruses on tracks like “P.I.M.P.” or “Like My Style.”
Both Baby Keem and 50 Cent also share the bond of establishing their careers with the help of monumentally successful mentors. Though only rumored during the start of Keem’s career, it’s now confirmed that he’s the cousin of Pulitzer Prize and 13-time Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar. He’s also signed to Lamar and Dave Free’s pgLang record label/collective. It’s not unlike how 50 was signed to Eminem’s Shady Records (under Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records) after the release of his 2002 mixtape Guess Who’s Back?, leading to a mentorship — and production on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — from Dre.
Both artists also followed up their breakouts with more expansive albums that juggle their boisterous personas, distinctive voices, and a shared taste for melodic crooning. The Melodic Blue has little else in common with The Massacre, but the former’s fascination with the latter may help to map out the sprawl of his debut studio album.
On the opener, “trademark usa,” Keem reflects briefly on changes in his lifestyle and relationships before launching into the almost comically flagrant persona that defined much of Die for My Bitch. His enunciated-but-shrill voice on the mic is suited to bizarre raps about everything from registering his guns and girlfriends as LLCs to tap water causing diabetes. The track also features the first of several beatswitches on the album, highlighting the diverse instrumentals of the almost entirely self-produced project.
Throughout the project, Keem’s production is often as bold as his lyrics. On the majority of the album, he experiments with a triumphant, arena-ready sound that seems to borrow from the likes of Kid Cudi, Kanye West (who featured Keem on DONDA) and Travis Scott, whom he teamed up with for “durag activity.”
On the highs of this approach — the soaring horns of “booman,” the first beat on “family ties,” and the warbling vocal sample on “scapegoats,” — he is an undeniable force. The songs also feature some of the album’s most effective writing. His ambitious first verse on “family ties” starts off a charismatic back-and-forth with Lamar (which hits a hilarious climax on the outro to “range brothers”), and he shuffles references to a dangerous past with a slew of success stories on “scapegoats” (“One day I’ll tell you how my life was so unfortunate/For now, I’ll tell you how fast these Porsches get”).
However, his method doesn’t always work. On low points like the deadpan beat and accompanying chorus of “south africa” or the oversaturated production and vocals on “gorgeous,” Keem sounds imitative at best and grating at worst.
Not unlike his supposed blueprint, Keem also explores a more sentimental sound. If not for the teeth-clenching cringe of lines like “We overdue for some fucking/We overdue for some sucking” in his signature whine, parts of the album might’ve been passed off as “for the ladies.” He does this most successfully on the upbeat Don Toliver-assisted “cacao” and the DJ Dahi produced closer “16.”
The latter, a midtempo R&B groove sitting on distorted drums, sounds like nothing else on the album — but Keem flows and puts together a chorus for it at least as well as he does any of the other songs. It’s unclear whether the song is meant to represent a new direction for the eccentric rapper or simply another spontaneous choice in the studio. In his music, sometimes the two overlap.