Music – no matter what kind – is, at its strongest, most touching when you feel an artist means it. If they are making music about the struggle to comprehend their lives. Like a diary entry, a report from the battlefield, that is life and love. That is why many great artists wrote their most impactful work when they were young. That’s when all is new to you, all these until then unknown feelings, the rollercoaster of emotions that we all go through: They crash onto and into you with full effect and hardly any filter.
And if you want to hear a recent example of an artist wrestling with entering life, please listen to the 20-year-old, hip-hop shooting star Baby Keem. His tracks not only maneuver a rollercoaster of emotions, but also master the ride that is his blossoming fame. Keem’s music has the power to pull you close: By listening to his lyrics, to his voice, you feel like you are there with him. You listen, you learn, or you are reminded of the fact that some questions start at a young age, but probably don’t end until death:
What is love?
What is affection,
And what is the difference between them?
Words: Hendrik Lakeberg
You might think that by listening to Keem’s lyrics, you get to know the man intimately. But that is only partly true. Following the footsteps of the confessional hip-hop mega star Drake, the rapper admits his lyrics are personal, but in listening to them, our feelings mingle with Baby Keem’s world. In the end, we probably learn most about ourselves by listening to someone else finding words and sounds for how we feel. And then this strange miracle happens, even though the artist grew up completely different than you:
You can relate. The best thing about youth is, you experience it in an unmatched intensity, so you remind everybody out there how it feels to be human.
To me, it happened lately with Baby Keem’s track “Hooligan,” his latest big hit. “Hooligan” felt cathartic and true to me – even though I live in Berlin and not Las Vegas, and I am twice as old as the artist himself. Because feelings are universal, baby. “Sex and attraction play a huge part in my music,” Keem says, “because it is so relatable. Everyone has sex. And everybody feels love. It is tough to not write about it. I go through it on a daily basis.” That is not only the daily struggle of a heartbreak kid. We all are exactly that: We break hearts and have our hearts broken. The art is to phrase the universal in a specific way that feels fresh and new – as if somebody understood how it feels to be alive in this moment in time.
As an artist, you know what is right and what is wrong. As do I as an artist. In my art, I get to express a bit of wrong and a lot of right. It comes with the territory. I just have to keep that in mind,” Keem says. In the track, he raps:
Eat the pussy so good
I give her butterflies
all in her stomach,
shit I’m the youngest n* runnin’ it
But there is also a touch of nervous sadness in the lyrics that are layered on top of a hypnotic piano loop. “There is this battle of humility we all go through. That battle of the ego – keeping that in check.” A young man entering the world, impatient for what’s to come. Impatient to leave his youth in Las Vegas, the house of his mother and grandmother behind, in which he grew up. Trying to conquer the world on his own terms. He started making music when he was 13. He released his first tracks when he was 17. That Kendrick Lamar is his cousin helped, but it isn’t the reason why we listen to Baby Keem. Him striving for humility is essential to his lyrical appeal. Because how couldn’t you become a megalomaniac when, at that age, millions suddenly start to listen to every bit you say. But, in truth, there will come a time when your boosted self esteem will crash into reality – and the virtual reality.
Keem knows at a young age that good things come to you, but they also pass. Pain is universal. And no matter how rich and famous – heartbreak connects us all. The darkly romantic title of his album Die for my Bitch hints at that. Keem explains: “Throughout it, I struggle with humility, jealousy, the ego, specifically around women. I wrote the album while I was angry. One day I would feel upset, the next really loving.” We feel you, Keem!
What makes his angle on the story different is not only his age, but also that he seems to pave the way to the modern day gentleman of the post-cloud rap era. “I die for you, bitch” is only one statement that hints at that. His language takes no prisoners, his words explicit and raw, but you always feel that there is this earnest struggle to understand. Not cynicism, but a seductive mixture of sadness, confidence and hope. The way he phrases this emotional complexity can be misunderstood; this became evident when Twitter users were banned for quoting Keem’s lyrics.
In his track “Orange Soda” Keem raps: “When you come see the crib, you better die, hoe.” When fans posted the line as a status update, the tech company read it as a call for violence and suspended the Twitter users.
In fact, the track is about a guy being madly in love with a woman. Contemplating this still unanswered love, he goes through the motions of anger, insecurity and affection. The line before that is: “I hate a bitch that I can’t impress.” So, obviously, the phrase “die, hoe” is meant metaphorically. He tells himself that he is the greatest mf on the planet while, at the same time, wants to lay the world at the feet of the woman he desires:
Seven fig n*
with the big drip on me (Yeah)
Post on your block
with your wish list on me
I am sure you know this moment: When your love is not reciprocated, the butterflies in your stomach slowly fade, making room for the rollercoaster ride of rejection and affection and being torn in between. Because, after all, the love we are searching for is about giving and taking. Like sex, love is never a one way street. And if your love is answered, then make sure you know what it all is truly about. It won’t be easy, but all the more rewarding. Baby Keem knows: “Caring about somebody is important. Possibly the meaning of love. I am trying to figure that out. Caring about someone is the most important thing. Once you do that, the other feelings are limitless.”
PHOTOS ADRIENNE RAQUEL, FASHION DIRECTION SINA BRAETZ, HAIR & MAKEUP AMBER AMOS AT THE ONLY AGENCY, WARDROBE TAYLOR MCNEILL, PRODUCTION SOPHIE MEISTER FOR PRODUCTION L.A.
AT PRODUCTION BERLIN GROUP, PRODUCER ALEXANDER PHILIP, SET DESIGN JUSTIN FRY, CASTING ADAM BROWNE AT SIX WOLVES, TALENT BABY KEEM, INTERVIEW HENDRIK LAKEBERG, PHOTO ASSISTANT AARON MORGENSTEIN AND PHOEBE SOLOMAN, STYLING ASSISTANT MICHELLE FOSTER AND RITA AHSALEH, PRODUCTION ASSISTANT JOSH SAWYER