Music

The Ascent Of Baby Keem From Underground Rapper To Grammy-Winning Artist

Once obscure from the bright lights of mainstream rap, the name and profile of Baby Keem has risen the past year with the release of his debut album, The Melodic Blue, elevating him from an underground treasure to one of the genre’s most promising young stars.

Off the heels of sleeper-hit “Orange Soda” in 2019, the 21-year-old artist has scaled the Billboard charts with songs like “Range Brothers” and “Family Ties,” both assisted by his Pullitzer Prize-winning cousin Kendrick Lamar. His freshman album drew critical praise and some hardware to show for his musical ascension.

The Vegas-raised artist, born Hykeem Jamaal Carter Jr., was named Billboard’s first 2021 R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Year and received three nods for the 64th Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. He didn’t take home that coveted award — bested by Olivia Rodrigo — but was still able to take the Grammys stage for a win in the Best Rap Performance category.

Keem, the once faceless artist who hid behind palette-styled cover arts early in his career, has stepped firmly into his place as a transcendent musical talent, expanding from his enigmatic underground status to a known product of today’s sound. But even before his freshman debut and his signing to Kendrick Lamar’s pgLang media company, Keem started rapping at age 13, eventually honing his skittish flow and charismatic delivery over a cheap microphone.

“When I really started, I was 13 and I had Apple studio sh*t on my computer,” Keem said in an interview with Lamar for the 40th Anniversary Issue of i-D Magazine. “I had borrowed $300 from my grandma and I got my stuff on Craigslist. I was probably 15. I got a mic for $50. It was sh*t but it worked. So, I just started learning on that. I made it work.”

From the point his music developed, he landed a few production credits on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack and the albums of Top Dawg Entertainment associates Jay Rock and ScHoolBoy Q. Keem gained some traction from his first mixtape The Sound Of Bad Habit in 2018, which set the stage for his stop-and-go flow to shine, rapping “Dare I say it / B*tch, I’m Baby Keem, I don’t have time for trends” on the opener “Wolves.”

His name flashed to the masses with Die For My B*tch a vivacious and stylishly moodish project, with the standout track “Orange Soda” becoming a platinum-certified hit because of the song’s pulsating beat, hilariously cheeky lyrics, and outward brashness. Despite the buzz from Keem’s first two mixtapes, much about him was still a mystery.

Back then, an image or interview with the California-born artist could barely be found. But things changed once rumors about Keem’s affiliation with Lamar began to swirl, and soon, the cloak of invisibility surrounding him would shed as their kinship was revealed. As an artist, Keem didn’t lean on their relationship at first. Instead, he revealed in an interview with The Rap Pack that he worked on his music without the “Alright” artist knowing. That way, he could come into form on his own and leave any thoughts of nepotism to the wayside. “He didn’t even know I made music for a while,” Keem said. “He was on some, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Man, I just want to go to college, bro. I’m going to figure it out.’ I wasn’t even 100 percent sure I was even good at music.”

Keem later added: “If I wasn’t ready to like do what I’m doing now, then it wouldn’t be happening, you know what I’m saying? Even in the process […] I wouldn’t even ask for anything. I didn’t send him my music until later, later. I just wanted to make sure it was from me personally; I wanted to make sure it was owned.”

That was then, but now, Keem has doubled down on his relationship with Lamar and squared his focus on refining his creative process and broadening his sound. As Keem highlighted in an interview with Ebro Darden in October, everything he does is in service of the music. No matter the occasion, he’s always searching for things that spark inspiration and lead to his evolution as an artist, songwriter, and record producer:

“I don’t really leave that mold. I feel like when I go home, everything I do is for the sake of the music. If I watch a movie, or if a play a video game, I’m studying something. There’s something in there I can use, especially a movie for sure. If I watch Netflix right now, I’m watching the way it’s shot because I want to shoot a music video, or I’m looking at the actors and studying them in their gestures because I might want to mimic or take inspiration from it.

I try to have my moment, but I be bored. Like, people go on vacations and things like that and I’m not there yet. I don’t know how to go on vacation yet.”

From his first project to this year’s Grammy, Keem has carved out a lane all his own, using his frenetic and experimental sound to pierce through the guards of hip-hop circles. Once overlooked, he’s now recognized as one of the industry’s young musical supernovas. On “Trademark USA,” he declares his placement in rap, “I took the torch / I quit being nice.”

His Grammy win only serves as affirmation for his current spot, and the one he’ll be in the future. But for now, he’ll enjoy the ride, and in time, learn to take the proper vacation he deserves.

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