Lil Keed Was A Fascinating, Versatile Chameleon Of Rap

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On “Muso Kuso” from his new, posthumous album Keed Talk To ‘Em 2, Atlanta rapper Lil Keed sounds suspiciously like his mentor Young Thug. From the guttural, yowling flow he affects alongside guest rapper Nav, to the nasal, high-pitched whine he tacks onto the ends of his bars, he near-perfectly duplicates the YSL impresario’s most distinctive vocal traits. Normally, this kind of thing might not even be notable for a trap rapper operating under the banner of an older, more experienced contemporary.

But just two tracks earlier, Keed appeared to be set on channeling the more brusque, blunt-ended style of trap rap pioneers like Jeezy and Yung Joc. On “Go See,” the album’s blustering, boisterous intro, Keed sounds like he stepped out of a time machine freshly arrived from a decade earlier. And on “Bags To The Sky,” the bridge between the two tracks, he’s a SoundCloud rapper, floating along on a cotton candy beat as he delivers a signature chirpy chant of a hook, giving his take on the briefly dominant sound of the late 2010s.

These three tracks perfectly encapsulate and preface a project that displays all of Keed’s fascinating, chameleonic versatility, his way of refusing to settle into one recognizable style for an entire project. The second installment of his Keed Talk To ‘Em series – and unfortunately, the last – is as freewheeling and loose as its title suggests. Here is a rapper at play, trying out and discarding new styles as he sees fit, showing off, and getting down. It’s perhaps a glimpse behind the scenes of the album recording process that circumstances forced into being an album itself.

You often hear rappers talk about recording hundreds of songs in the course of creating a new project, then having to whittle that daunting number down to a playlist that could reasonably be finished in an hour or on the average commute. And while many of those sketches never see the light of day – barring the leaks that have become increasingly common in the digital era as hard drives go missing and hackers waylay file exchanges – this is what often takes place in those sessions: Play.

In the 50 years since rap was first recorded for mass consumption, dozens of unique approaches have been developed, copied, modified, and evolved from the relatively straightforward rhyme schemes of old. And rap has also slowly absorbed traits of outside genres as it incorporated new technologies and production styles that allowed for greater experimentation. The landscape is truly sprawling, and oftentimes, an artist wants to try out all those toys in the toy box before settling on the one or two that will come to define the sound of a song, album, or catalog.

The time to do this is mostly behind closed doors. Hip-hop is as much a branding exercise as it is a musical genre; the most successful artists have clearly defined, easily recognizable cadences, vocal tones, beat choices, and even ad-libs. You just know when you’re hearing a Jay-Z verse – even a verse that was merely penned by him and performed by someone else – or an Eminem screed or a sermon by Pastor Future. And as much as that’s how artists build their legacies and set the foundation for long careers, any veteran artist can also tell you, it gets boring.

This is why someone like Common does an album like Electric Circus or Kanye West drops 808s & Heartbreak. However, the reception for such experimentation can vary wildly – just look at the two examples mentioned above. So, for many artists, there’s more benefit in experimenting out of the spotlight, fine-tuning any planned musical shifts, and only gradually showing off that versatility in the interest of slowly evolving into a different kind of artist or sharing a different side of themselves.

Lil Keed had two great advantages going for him in that respect. The first was timing; he had the good fortune to come into his own as a rapper just when streaming and the internet have been eroding the barriers between subgenres of rap. Taking it even further, because so many young rappers are developing their craft in the spotlight as a result of SoundCloud, Instagram, and song leaks, fans are much more receptive to big musical shifts. The other great advantage Keed had was being signed to one of the more nurturing artistic environments in the music business today.

Young Thug, who once paid Lil Baby an impressive sum to give up trapping and stick to rapping, allowed Keed to try things. You could just about hear the support he was being given on projects like Long Live Mexico and his Trapped On Cleveland mixtapes. As much as Keed operated in the mode of modern trap, he never felt restricted. He didn’t need to sound like Thug or Lil Baby or Young Scooter or any of his influences. He just did, bouncing from track to track employing whichever flow felt right on the beat. It makes sense; this is what Young Thug always did, so of course, he’d allow his artists similar freedom (the freedom he was often criticized for enjoying at a similar phase of his own career).

Keed is able to take this even further, veering dangerously close to boom-bap traditionalism on “Lost My Trust” with Cordae, getting introspective on “Can’t Fall Victim” and “Self Employed,” and even taking a gospel-R&B tack on album closer “Thank You Lord.” Keed stood out because he was so unconstrained by the boundaries that usually box in other rappers. He could do anything, so he did. It’s a shame that the world was deprived of the opportunity to see what he would do given the tools and toys that will undoubtedly continue to be added to hip-hop’s ever-growing repertoire of styles, sounds, and new technology.

Keed Talk To ‘Em 2is out now via YSL and 300 Entertainment.

Lil Keed is a Warner Music artist. .