Baby Keem is easy to love.
The 20-year-old burgeoning rapper, who is poised to mark a cultural shift in hip-hop, greets you with a teeth-baring grin, which, once he’s comfortable, resurfaces after every couple of sentences. During his hour-long interview with Billboard, Keem touches on everything from his latest single, “Family Ties” debuting at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 (alongside collaborator and cousin Kendrick Lamar) to his struggles as a six-year-old during his mother’s time in rehab, and difficulties today. All the while, he continues to smile.
"You can't be the person that complains about what you asked for," he says.
On Sept. 10, the rising artist released his critically acclaimed freshman album, The Melodic Blue, which debuts this week at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart, with 53,000 equivalent album units moved, according to MRC data. The 16-track project features soul-baring deep cuts, caption-ready lyrics (“I’m sexy and blessed,” “LLC the glock and I LLC my b—ch,” to name a few), imaginative production and all-star features from Lamar, Travis Scott and Don Toliver, as well as uncredited vocals from Rosalía.
"I don't think music has anything out right now, like this project,” says Keem. “I took my time carefully recording every vocal. I was going through a lot during that process, just becoming a man.”
While many listeners may be encountering Keem for the first time, via The Melodic Blue, the young rapper already has three mixtapes under his belt, collaborations with both Kanye West and Drake, on top of his already-impressive production and songwriting work for myriad artists. “That was random, [‘Family Ties,’] then Kanye coming in with ‘Praise God,’ and Drake playing my ‘What's Next’ verse on his radio in the span of five days," he says. "That's a sign... Maybe my mission here is much deeper.”
Leaned back on the sofa of his luxury room on the 32nd floor of a Hudson Yards hotel, Keem is 2,500 miles away from his Las Vegas beginnings, an unlikely starting point for a high charting rapper.
Keem, born Hykeem Jamaal Carter Jr., spent his early years living mostly with his grandmother, someone he frequently references in his music and recently bought a home for. The surprise unveiling of the house was documented in the pgLang-directed music video for his album cut, “first order of business.”
As a high-schooler living in Las Vegas, Keem started off his rap career like most wide-eyed teenagers: sending countless unanswered emails to music bloggers and getting his friends to do the same. “If I thought about [ignored emails] I probably wouldn’t be here now,” says Keem. “There was probably only one person who ever replied -- his name is Naji, he was at Rap Radar. It was a moment of [relief], like ‘finally!’”
Before breaking out as a rapper, Keem received attention for his production skills, working on beats for the Top Dawg Entertainment roster after school. "To be honest, I never really wanted to be a producer, which is the funny part," he explains. "I only started making beats because I didn’t really have any. And it [became] something I can't live without doing."
Keem secured production credits on Schoolboy Q's Crash Talk, Jay Rock's Redemption, and the soundtracks for The Lion King and Black Panther. On The Melodic Blue, Keem co-produced 14 of the 16 tracks, and says he’s now a more confident producer who hopes to make beats for other artists.
Keem, who identifies as part of the Mike WiLL Made-It and Metro Boomin generation, derives inspiration from the two game-changing producers, as well as fellow rapper/producer Kanye West. "That's one person I'll never say anything ill about. He's a legend. [Without him] I wouldn't even be sitting here, I wouldn't have had the inspiration for this project," Keem says. "Music has been kind of repetitive lately, [and] he's one person I could always reference who really pushes boundaries. One can only hope to have a catalogue that goes as deep as his."
Although Keem began working with TDE on the production front in 2017, it was his second mixtape, Hearts & Darts, that caught the attention of cousin Lamar, and eventually, former Top Dawg Entertainment president and pgLang co-founder, Dave Free. Free, who Lamar has credited as being the first person to believe in his music, similarly committed to Keem's career and development. “Dave came in and I started learning him creatively and he started learning me and we got really close. Those guys are like my brothers now,” he says.
While Keem’s family ties are noteworthy, the eclectic rapper stands tall on his own. His distinctly theatrical sound, “did he really say that?” lyricism and unconventional production skills predate his star-studded collaborations. Keem’s self-released 2019 single “Orange Soda,” from his EP Die For My Bitch, racked in over 263.5 million on-demand streams in the U.S. according to MRC data, garnering the multi-hyphenate a cult-following in the underground rap scene.
Two years later, the Columbia Records signee released “durag activity” featuring Travis Scott -- which Keem calls a “hybrid” of "Orange Soda," but with new, distinct flows. While “durag activity” came ahead of his album, the bouncy single shared only a sliver of what The Melodic Blue would be.
“I just want to make sure I'm always giving people something new -- maybe not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear,” Keem says. “If it was up to some people, I'd just make a bunch of ‘Orange Soda’s and call it a day.”
When talking to Billboard, Keem is one day removed from his first major festival performance at the Made In America Festival, and is still gearing up for his first television performance -- on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
“My voice is cooked,” he says, a thick layer of rasp coating each word. Behind him stands an expansive rack laden with exclusively black articles of clothing, enough to dress an unlucky someone for about fifty funerals. “I got a fit that I’m really excited to wear, but I’m not showing nobody yet,” he says, before gingerly pulling out a sleek windbreaker, that is, you guessed it, black.
Keem says the closet’s worth of black outfits is his attempt to live in New York for two weeks. Immediately, his manager, Juanita “Niya” Morton, begins brainstorming potential neighborhoods for the west coast rapper to live. Within minutes, Keem is leaned over, swiping through potential apartments on Zillow. “I love a high-rise situation,” he adds.
While Keem has quickly acclimated to the finer things in life, his early years were a far different story. He recounts a designated day he and his family would go to the back of a Goodwill and search through the boxes of discarded clothing for wearable pieces. “That was when I was like four or five years old,” he says. “I’ve seen it all and it's important for me to talk about that rather than then trying to run away from it or being someone [I’m] not.”
In the months that followed the release of Die For My Bitch, Keem attended a few sessions of therapy, which he says taught him to be more vulnerable in his music. "A lot of people are embarrassed by their families, what happened to them and their traumas," he explains."[In] therapy, I'm telling this random person these things -- so why can’t I tell the world? It just gave me the confidence to really start expressing myself more."
In his own words, Keem is now sharing the blessings, no more trauma. "In the [album] trailer I say, 'Thousands to my auntie, too,'" he explains, before picking up his phone and flashing a text from his aunt that reads: “I got people calling my phone asking me for money.”
Keem lets out a full laugh. "That's a sign that she loves it."