Baby Keem: 2021 R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Year

As an extension of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month series, the editorial team honors its first Rookie of the Year, Baby Keem.

As an extension of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month series – which has highlighted emerging artists including Tems, Pooh Shiesty, Blxst, and Foushee – the editorial team is honoring our first-ever Rookie of the Year. The annual award will be given to an artist whose musical feats and accomplishments have cemented them as one to watch for years to come.

pgLang/Columbia Records signee Baby Keem has had quite the year. After a handful of singles and an acclaimed freshman album, The Melodic Blue, that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, the 21-year-old Vegas-raised rapper climbed from underground favorite to mainstream sensation. Keem was nominated for three Grammys, including best rap performance and best rap song for “Family Ties” alongside Kendrick Lamar, as well as best new artist. He performed on The Tonight Show Featuring Jimmy Fallon, dominated at music festivals and headlined his first tour. Propelled by a mindset centered around “doing it my way,” Keem reflects below on the lessons, successes and challenges of his breakthrough year.

There’s a concept I believe: that my best form of guidance is to not be guided. Because in reality, the best guidance I have is making my own decisions and doing it my way. And that’s the real specialness of it all. [Touring has been] a huge learning experience. Learning how to take care of myself, my body, how to stay out of trouble. How to control being bored in certain moments, and resting when I need to. You just feel s–tty the next day [if you don’t], and then you try to do everything you can to stop that feeling before you go onstage, and you don’t want to feel like that. So you try to pace yourself.

I think the foundation that Kendrick and I have forged with our team and just collaborating and finally getting that first [album] out, were my proudest moments of this year, for sure. That was the dream, the perfect collaboration that we had. And those collaborations mark our relationship. So if you want to know how our relationship is, listen to [“Range Brothers” and “Family Ties.”] You could feel it, especially in “Range Brothers.” That’s my proudest moment–plus the Grammy nominations and [successes] that came from the album, the videos that we did and the celebrations that we had as a team.

A word that I have locked in is “intentional.” The Melodic Blue is very intentional, even with having songs spread across genres. It’s not a modern offering in terms of doing what everyone else is doing — I’m doing my own thing — but I do take inspiration from what’s going on [around me]. Compositionally, the music is in the future.

When it first came out, it was all praise. But of course, you have people that don’t understand it because they’re so used to what’s going on. They even go so far to say it’s experimental, when in reality, I’m not experimenting: These are sounds that people should be hearing. This is all music. I think people have lost their perception of what music really is in the last few years. So when an intentional, well-composed offering comes about, they’re fearful to fall in love with it, or they’re very protective of it. They label it experimental. But in reality, this is just music. The only thing experimental about the album is that it has pop songs, and then a [rap] song like “Trademark USA.”

The Melodic Blue is similar to the name Andre 3000. In 10 years we can listen to this album — and like Andre 3000’s name, it will still be in the future. The Melodic Blue is Andre 300, as an album. We took where music has been and merged it with where music is going, which is basically what new ideas are anyway. Each new idea takes something that has been somewhere before and revolutionizes it. That’s what TMB is, in the space of 2021.

My music is growing the way that I think it should. The right people respond to it, the shows are doing what they should be doing. People are reacting the way they should to the music, and they’re creating their own perspective from it. That’s all you can really ask for.

A Grammy nomination is something I’ve been wanting for a long time. To see it happen is pretty cool, and speaks to the work that we put in. I think my manager told me when it first happened. I was on tour, it was a surreal moment. It felt like some sort of validation, but it didn’t at the same time. It’s weird — I don’t know how to explain it, but it just felt good to have. It doesn’t define anything, but it feels great to be a part of that. It was a win for everybody. But there’s more work to be done. I want a couple more next year. It honestly motivates me for my next project.

My process is completely different now versus making The Melodic Blue. People won’t be able to tell until the music comes out, but I feel like I’m taking a different approach. It’s just growth. Your first time playing a sport, everything’s coming at you so fast. But then you get to your tenth or 20th time playing and you feel comfortable. You’re just cruising. You’re able to take your time, really pace things out and think about things in a new way because you have that experience that you didn’t have before. I feel like that’s where my writing is now.

The meaning of life for me right now is to maximize my potential while I’m here. And whatever I have to offer, to give it and enjoy family in the process. I’m 21. That’s my meaning of life as of today, but tomorrow it might be different.

As told to Neena Rouhani.