Enigmatic rappers add to hip-hop's allure as a thrilling genre built on limitless expression. Nineteen-year-old Las Vegas native Baby Keem is rap's newest enigma, keeping the music he's released over the last two years at the forefront while small glimpses of his outside-the-booth personality are given through his music videos and sporadic social media posts (case in point tweet: "eating icecream with a fork … off of a plate 😈🙈"). He rarely does interviews and keeps a low-profile, which allows for his songwriting and producing credits to shine (Schoolboy Q's "Numb Numb Juice" and "Lies," Jay Rock's "Knock It Off," "Redemption Interlude" from Black Panther The Album, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar's "Nile," featured on The Lion King: The Gift LP). All this steadily increases the curiosity around who he is. "Baby Keem, not a wave, I'm a vibe, ho," he declares on his platinum-selling track "Orange Soda," off his most lauded project to date, 2019's Die for My Bitch.
Keem, born Hykeem Carter, is also Kendrick Lamar's cousin, further proving the theory that talent runs in the blood. In March, the rapper, who names Kanye West and Lil Wayne as influences, offered another rare look at this connection when he appeared in the visual debut of the pgLang brand, a multilingual, at-service company founded by Kendrick and Dave Free, the former president of record label Top Dawg Entertainment. Keem is signed to pgLang. With a solid foundation like this, plenty of projects that showcase his distinctive style (Hearts and Darts, The Sound of Bad Habit, Die for My Bitch) and the creative chops to make a hit, it's clear Keem had to be a 2020 XXL Freshman.
To mark the XXL Freshman honor, the West Coast MC delivers a freestyle that touches on familial relationships, closing deals and tasting success. The vibe of the a cappella moment has an air of mystery as Keem is cloaked in the shadows, rocking a hoodie over his head and keeping his focus on the ground below him. He begins with a nod to the pandemic-induced quarantine and quickly shifts gears to keeping his aura cleansed. "I don't go outside no more, I stay remote/Keep my spirit clean from all the demon folk/Kiss my niece, then I make some green tea/Just closed another deal before she fell asleep/That's meditation, hydration, both'll do/That's good pussy, good books, good view/So, what's the inside joke? What's the inside joke?/You will never know, that's the Morse code," he rhymes.
Keem also gets nostalgic on his childhood and humble beginnings. "Felt so lost, getting caught red-handed on spot," he delivers. "Thought I was good in them white K-Swisses/My mama had me puttin' pen on box, back when my Velcro straps was fading/Grandma's on the housing this week, grew impatient/Damned if the government stop they payments."
The minute-long freestyle even brings listeners into Baby Keem's new world of wealth and women. "Aye, I can't help but feel neglected/Changin' up your schedule, your calendar refreshin'/Time passin', we move on, nobody says shit/So, how I'm ’posed to act when my morals weren't respected/And how you ’posed to act when yo' feelings ain't protected/I'm cashin' checks just to get some neck/And some necklaces, so, what's next?/More turbulence, prayin' on this plane/Success, got a taste of it, never was the same," the rising newcomer raps.
This is Baby Keem in rap mode, but like many new-gen artists in hip-hop, the title of rapper feels somewhat limiting to him. He sees himself outside that box. "I don’t like putting boxes on myself and that’s the biggest thing," he tells XXL. "Like, I just don’t want to be put in a box, period. I feel like I have a lot of shifts in my mood and what I like. One thing I like now might not be what I liked then. One moment I could be doing a country album. I just feel like I can do plenty of things with country music.
"I am not opposed to the title rapper, but that’s not all I do. I’m a creative. [Being creative means] just taking influence from everything and putting it out in your own way. Movies, acting, just putting your idea, just getting your ideas out however you do that. I just feel like I am a creative and not to shit on the term rapper because I am a rapper as well. I will never shit on people who made a way for me."
Experience Baby Keem's 2020 XXL Freshman freestyle below.
See the 2020 XXL Freshman Class