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Baby Keem – Listen closely

© Juan Tlatoa

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“I always knew I could rap,” Hykeem Carter Jr. asserts, speaking via Zoom from isolation in his manager’s Los Angeles home. “I just never thought I had the voice. But once I start doing something, I get really deep into it. I really try my best to be the best.”

Hykeem Carter is better known as Baby Keem. The 19-year-old rapper committed to the name after breaking through in 2018 with his anthemic track of the same name. Its release announced the arrival of the rapper’s high-impact, head-on sound. “I made the song and it was a given. It just felt good.” The feeling spread as he won over young audiences with his singular voice and cut through the noise of the US’ oversaturated hip-hop landscape. He may have snatched attention by being ‘baby’, but his prodigious abilities were crafted through practice.

Keem was born in California but raised, for the most part, in Las Vegas, where he lived with his mother and aunts. Growing up, the house was filled with the sounds of Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye and films like the Snoop Dogg-starring The Wash and John Singleton’s Baby Boy – turn of the millennium works which brought hip-hop culture to cinema. From the beginning, art has shaped the way he views the world. “Grandma definitely influenced me to be creative,” he explains. “Her whole thing was me being successful at something. I never felt like my family was holding me back.”

It was as a teenager that Keem’s own creativity first began to bloom – he started making beats and recording lyrics in his bedroom after school. A studious kid, a recognition of hard work was drilled into him by elders early. “I tried to make the most of school and make it fun however I could,” he remembers. Keem was a self-proclaimed class clown – a natural communicator with playful charisma.

Keem talks in short, bright bursts, his personality coming across just as it does on record. He dropped his first solo EP, Midnight, in 2018. While slightly less polished than the material he’s released since, the EP demonstrated that the then-17-year-old had unlocked a vision which is recognisable across all his output; sparse, precise beats which provide a colourful architecture for his crystal-clear flows. It’s rare for a Baby Keem track to surpass three minutes, even rarer for it to have a feature from another artist. If the last few years of commercial hip-hop have been largely marked by garbled flows, exponential collaborations and lavish production, then Baby Keem is the antipode. His formula is simple, but deliberate. “When I first started I was just testing things out, seeing what I can do. I learned about the technical aspects. I learned how to use my voice as an instrument and everything changed.”

Situated firmly in the Kanye/Cudi generation of rap students (Keem refers to West as the “GOAT” on three separate occasions during our interview), he approaches rap like a producer and vice versa. The timbre and modulations of voice function in the same way a beat does – a tool used to drive rhythm and create melodious, moreish loops.

© Juan Tlatoa
“I always knew I could rap. I just never thought I had the voice”

From the first release, Keem’s sound felt like a complete product – gritty and streetwise but rich and vivid, his knack for atmosphere almost leaning into the cinematic. He felt destined for new heights. And it didn’t take long. While still releasing low-key solo projects of his own, he was brought in as a producer on full-length projects by Kendrick’s TDE label-mates Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock. Songwriting and production work on two blockbuster albums followed: Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack from 2018 and Beyoncé’s The Gift, the accompanying album for Disney’s The Lion King.

Even though his name was tucked away in the liner notes, Keem’s presence was intriguing – a relative unknown on lists that included the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Jorja Smith and Future. Then, in July 2018, Keem stepped out from the shadows. Speaking to Pigeons & Planes in his first ever interview, he attempted to demystify how he ended up working with Kendrick and TDE. “I sent a pack of beats to the TDE email, and it just so happened that I ended up on the soundtrack. God’s blessing,” he told the publication. But eagle-eyed observers on the rap-internet weren’t convinced. A since-deleted tweet from October 2016 then surfaced from Kendrick’s sister wishing her cousin Hykeem a happy birthday. It didn’t take much to join the dots.

Keem has neither confirmed nor denied that his cousin is, indeed, one of the greatest rappers of the 21st century. Instead, it’s become something of an open secret. When I ask him if Kendrick had a presence in his life at all growing up it’s clear he’d like to move the conversation along. “Not really. That all happened a little bit later. I’ll get more into that later on though.” Somehow, we don’t revisit the topic.

So, the epic story that he was signed off the strength of an unsolicited beat pack may not be true. And sure, some fans who value hard hustle and something-from-nothing hip-hop tales felt hoodwinked (a pseudo-investigative video entitled Baby Keem Is An INDUSTRY PLANT?! has 18,000 views on YouTube). But details like these shouldn’t distract from Baby Keem’s skill.

With regards to his resumé – a list of accomplishments most hungry artists dream of – he’d rather brush it off and keep his head down. “This is definitely a cool experience that a lot of people don’t get to have so I’m very blessed. But I like to just take it in and move on to the next.”

Now openly under the mentorship of Kendrick and Dave Free, TDE’s former president who left the label in 2019 reportedly to focus on Keem, a clearer future seems to be pulling into focus. “I try to make a song a day.” He tells us, breaking down his athletic work ethic, “if I can’t then I try to make two songs the next day. I just want to be productive. That’s how I look at everything.” Indeed, Keem is quietly one of rap’s hardest workers, previously slipping three projects out in the space of five months.

Despite being far from releasing any kind of defining statement, his hard work and relentless refinement is impossible to ignore on the 2019 tape DIE FOR MY BITCH – a varied, concentrated set of songs which see him apply his meticulously restrained approach to a number of styles. There’s the woozy melodies of Honest, the processed emo-rap of My Ex and the infectious bounce of Orange Soda which gave Keem his first crossover hit after going viral on TikTok – a musical ecosystem which rewards direct, snappy hooks.

In an age where controversy outside of the booth can propel young rappers more than ever, Keem’s undistracted tunnel vision feels significant. “For me, it’s about only doing things which I’m comfortable with. If I don’t feel comfortable about a certain post then I won’t do it. I just do what I want to do and working is what I want to do right now.”

“When I first started I was just testing things out, seeing what I can do. I learned how to use my voice as an instrument and everything changed”

The work continues, and Keem’s vision is expanding. In March, he appeared in a “visual mission statement” for pgLang – a new creative endeavour founded by Kendrick and video producer Dave Free. The video starts with a cinematic shot of Keem staring into the sun and later shows him pacing through New York streets and subway stations with Kendrick. It’s extremely cryptic, and the written statement isn’t much clearer, describing pgLang as a “multi-lingual, at service company.” Some speculated that the launch was the start of a now-stalled Kendrick Lamar album campaign. If you ask Keem, the partnership is just confirmation that Kendrick and Free are the ones guiding his next steps and helping him realise his creative vision. “[They are helping with] everything. Me as a whole, Baby Keem the artist, Hykeem Carter. Everything, every aspect. They’re my guys, that’s my team. That’s my life.”

And if there’s one thing he has inherited from his mentors, it’s the belief that less is more. He stays fairly quiet on social media despite having his work shouted out by supreme tastemakers like Drake, Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and LeBron James. He’s only done a handful of interviews and it’s hard to tell whether his cautious, succinct answers are a product of shyness or an extension of a highly curated, minimalist approach. Or both. Either way, it’s clear that for now he’s keeping his head down. Analysing, creating, refining. “I really just like focusing on my craft and being the best at that,” he says. “I keep myself to myself.”

Photography: Juan Tlatoa

DIE FOR MY BITCH is out now via Baby Keem LLC

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