On Baby Keem, Jam Bands, 90s Country, Riot Fest, and more.
THIS ESSAT WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2021
I've spent the better part of the last week trying to pinpoint what it is about Baby Keem that sets him apart. The Las Vegas rapper, who recently released his highly anticipated record, The Melodic Blue, has been on my radar since the release of his last mixtape, Die For My Bitch. In the time since that release, Keem has gained a ton of notoriety, including an appearance among this year's XXL Freshman Class and notable features on Donda and Drake's "What's Next" Remix, but he hasn't quite reached the point where my mom knows his name. I don't consider people famous until my parents have at least heard their name before, and Keem isn't there quite yet.
Part of me thinks it's a miracle people know who Baby Keem is at all. I'm fairly well-versed in everything that works at radio and in mainstream culture right now, and Baby Keem is something else. Defining what he does is almost impossible. To say he's a rapper feels like an insult because he's doing so much more than rapping. Baby Keem is methodical in a way no one else in his generation is, and his obsession with crafting something that mirrors his state of mind is fascinating to witness. It's not uncommon for a single track to have two or three different beats, often with little to no transition between them. Keem also utilizes numerous flows to hold listeners' attention. One moment he may be shouting about his jewelry, but in the next, he's repeating the word "lit" in a rhythm that burrows into your subconscious. It's a mystery how he knows when a song is complete, but when he strikes that universal chord that resonates deep within your soul, you cannot deny that his creative pursuit is pure.
The Melodic Blue is the most complete version of Baby Keem's artistry we've seen, but he's still a work in progress. Much of the album oscillates between songs that seem to fixate on the wild lifestyle his career affords him and the generational trauma that has wrecked countless relationships and done a number on his mental health. It's like he's trying to outrun his emotions while simultaneously recognizing that what he's doing is wrong, but he's still unable to stop himself. Even with the world at his feet, Baby Keem acknowledges that he is still a young man who has yet to begin to grasp the enormity of life. He may be living his dreams, but what keeps him up at night are the fantasies not yet dreamt. Money, girls, and recognition will only get you so far. Keem is at a point now where he's processing the traumas that put him on the path he now walks, and that will bring him the greatest rewards. You can leverage your pain for content and wealth all you want, but until you take steps to heal, you will know an emptiness to success that can drive a person insane. No earthly progress will fill the void. Trust me—everyone has tried.
Existential growth is rarely linear, and Baby Keem is still a young person in their prime. When not contemplating the way our demons can live in the tissues that make up our body, Keem spouts an abundance of braggadocios and cocky bars that acknowledges how wasted time is never wasted as long as you're having fun. As he flips between flows and vocal inflections, you start to understand that relentless drive that burns inside Keem's chest. As much as he may take cues from his peers, his journey is unique, and he's learning to do what feels right rather than what might make the most sense. It's about spontaneity, yes, but also learning as you grow.
Baby Keem's art is messy because his life is a mess, but it's not for lack of trying. He's human, after all, and he's experimenting in hopes of finding more joy in a world where suffering abounds. Not every idea works, but that never holds him back. He keeps working and experimenting and never stops believing in his ability to find the next great idea. Everything between now and that moment it's just a series of little memories that will inevitably shape both his art and the person he is becoming in front of us. To him, and hopefully, to you, the chance that things don't work is a risk worth taking in pursuit of a better existence.
Speaking to Billboard writer Neena Rouhani for a piece published online September 20, 2021, Keem said:
"I don't think music has anything out right now, like this project. I took my time carefully recording every vocal. I was going through a lot during that process, just becoming a man."
Later, in the same profile, Keem adds:
"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."
You need to live life more. I know you already have an excuse for why you're not doing what you want to do but hear me out. Life is incredibly short. If there is anything I can teach anyone, it is that life goes by really fast, faster than you know. The problem is, nobody younger than me will listen, and everyone older than me already knows it to be true. We must learn this ourselves at our pace, but if you haven't done so yet, take this paragraph as a sign. You don't have as much time as you think you do, so stop pretending otherwise.
Remember: You can make more money, but you can never make more time.
I've learned that lesson half a dozen times. Part of me believes I've done a fairly good job of making the most of my time, but then again, others will disagree. I can recount the books, movies, and concerts I have been able to experience that number far higher than the average person. I have met many of my heroes in person, and I've had conversations with many more. Not everything I have ever tried has worked out, but I have always had a support system. I find a way to do things when I want to get them done. It's convincing myself that something is worth doing that is often the problem.
They say we all make thousands of choices every day, but most of us make the same choice every time. We have routines, and we do our best to stick with them. Routines are safe, and they take a lot of chance and risk out of life because who wants that kind of nonsense? Who can afford the brainpower I needed to make an extra decision here or there?
My boss calls this “the happy path.” He says every customer finds the simplest way to interact with the business or website and proceeds to repeat that interaction endlessly. When you go to Target, for example, there are sections you look at every single trip. Do you want to see the latest Magnolia products or discover a new seasonal cat scratcher? If so, you know where to look, and you look there every time. Target could add dozens of products that might interest you, but unless they appear somewhere in the store sections you always visit, the chances you discover them are relatively low. You might be missing something great, but you won't know it because you will not be aware that it is there. You have your way of doing things, and that makes you happy. Or at least, it makes things easy.
The plan for last weekend was simple. Laura and I were going to meet in Chicago to attend one day of Riot Fest 2021. I was bringing my dog, Tulip, for the journey, and she would stay behind at the hotel while we ventured into the city. We knew what we wanted to eat, who we wanted to see, and roughly how much the entire thing would cost. It wasn't a perfect plan, but it was a plan that had been in place since early summer.
I cannot tell you how the next sequence of events began, but I know that the shortness of life has been a recurring topic in our group chat for several weeks. A reporter from Europe recently referred to this point in culture as the "Yolo Era" because people are spending and living like there's no tomorrow. It seems a year spent in isolation has inspired more people than ever to live in the moment. Whether or not that is the best thing for the fight against coronavirus or our carbon footprint is not up for discussion right now. People have spent the past year thinking about, witnessing, and mourning countless deaths that were, by and large, unnecessary. Something most of us never expected has happened, and we are currently living through a global traumatic event unlike anything witnessed in a lifetime. Everyone everywhere is impacted by what is happening, and there is this shared desire for freedom of thought that is accelerating at a remarkable pace. Everyone needs a break, and people are finally taking steps to get a little peace of mind. Not enough, but more than before.
Back to Chicago. On Friday evening, I arrived a bit before Laura at a hotel in Willowbrook roughly thirty minutes outside downtown. When talking about travel in Chicago, one always refers to their distance from downtown under perfect conditions. In reality, Chicago traffic put us about an hour from downtown, but we didn't mind.
We started the day with no plans, but we decided to browse an event listing website to see what was happening in the city. Dead & Company, now joined by John Mayer, were finishing their 2021 summer tour with a two-night stand at Wrigley Field that was kicking off in just a few short hours. We assumed the show sold out, but a chance listing on a secondary market website landed us two tickets in the two hundred level for less than $50 total. It was a steal. I would tell you the name of the site, but they don't pay me, and I like my cheap tickets.
We made our way through traffic while talking about the rush we were feeling in the moment. Neither of us had seen Dead & Company before, but we were both curious about the show. Everyone that works in music has met somebody that has a Grateful Dead concert story. What happens in them doesn't matter, but the way that fans of the Grateful Dead talk about the group and the community around them is unique. Surely a concert at one of the most iconic ballparks in the country celebrating the end of yet another successful tour would be a night to remember, even if we didn't know many songs and were set to arrive roughly twenty minutes late for the first set. Even if it didn't go well, who cares! We were making a memory.
The parking garage where we made a reservation denied us access due to overbooking, but we found street parking less than three blocks away from the stadium. We spent a total of $2.75 to park, which is nothing when discussing Chicago parking prices, and made our way toward Wrigley Field as the band played through their first song. There were dozens of people lined up outside the stadium smoking recently legalized marijuana and dancing under the glow of streetlamps as a slight drizzle began to fall. One man wearing tie-dyed clothing told us he accidentally bought a ticket for the Saturday show only but didn't want to miss the gig.
We had yet to reach our seats when a nearby lightning sighting forced a short delay. As we stood in the historic corridors of Wrigley, thousands of soaking wet Dead fans poured into the space with smiles on their faces and drinks in hand. People were sad to see the show paused, but nobody was upset. We didn't see a single person complain about the rain or that they were in a tight space surrounded by other people who were also soaking wet during a global pandemic. It's easy to make a joke about how at least a good portion of the crowd was either drunk, high, or tripping on psychedelics, but even if that were the case, the energy in the venue was surprisingly positive. It's hard to describe what it's like to feel gently embraced by a community numbering in the tens of thousands mid thunderstorm, but it feels nice in a way that few things can.
When rain inevitably gave way, the band returned, and the night continued with a nearly full moon hanging high in a mostly clear sky. It's no great secret that stadium shows are notoriously hit or miss. While the opportunity to see your favorite artist in an iconic venue with a massive crowd seems incredible, the sound quality of such an event can be hard to predict. The wind of the storms made it difficult to hear much of Dead & Company's initial return. We could see the group giving the material their all, but we could only hear the drums and keys for the first ten or fifteen minutes. When the breeze finally subsided and the sound came through, however, it was not hard to understand the band's allure. Even without knowing the material, the vibes at the show itself were immaculate. We saw families with at least three generations of people enjoying the show together beside couples on their first date and flocks of dads enjoying a rare "guy's night" away from home. The latter was our favorite to watch, as they were often the liveliest of all. You haven't truly seen Dead & Company unless you've seen a group of dads in camo shorts, licensed bands tees purchased at a department store, and various white golf hats playing air guitar while cheering one another on and singing at the top of their lungs. That's living, folks.
Saturday started with its share of surprises. A spontaneous trip to Shedd Aquarium gave us a deep appreciation for the beauty of the sea while simultaneously making us mad that any animal is living in captivity. Shedd has baby beluga whales (plural) that live indoors! It's a beautiful thing to see, but at what cost? Their cries are as beautiful as they are haunting, and I believe you can say the same about the dolphins living one giant tank over. You cannot tell me the (still relatively steep) $40 entry fee is enough to ensure the happiness of those gentle giants.
As we made our way from the aquarium to Douglas Park for Riot Fest, Laura and I began reciting random one-liners from "Trademark USA," the opening track off The Melodic Blue. One of Baby Keem's songwriting signatures is his knack for memorable, seemingly non-sequitur bars that drill into your brain and take residence in your head. These lines often make no sense without context, making their use as shorthand between people who "get it" powerful. It's like a joke or story only the lucky few understand, and that shared recognition brings out a sense of belonging that makes us feel less alone as not only music fans but also people.
In the case of this moment, these were the bars in question:
Trademark on that pussy, trademarkin' my brand-new bitch
If the thought of us randomly exchanging these lines with one another while zipping around downtown Chicago makes you laugh—good. That's the whole point.
On this same drive, we started discussing the more meaningful moments of The Blue Melodic, or at least the ones that were easier to decipher. Both being career music professionals, we've seen our fair share of artists who use attention-grabbing comments to try and hook people into a deeper listening experience. Such marketing tactics are as old as time and still work today. What separates those who get listeners to transition from thinking "that's a memorable moment in a forgettable song" to "this person is a clever songwriter who masterfully lured me into their narrative" lies in what the artist has to say. We know that if you grab someone's attention and fail to deliver something special that they will never return, and here we were, still listening to the same album on repeat for the second day in a row. Keem is onto something.
After two spins of "Issues," perhaps the most melodic and blue song off the record, we parked for the festival. The meditative track, which has serious potential as a single, details Keem's battle with inner demons and the ripple effect that war on every aspect of his existence, including relationships. Keem performed the song on late-night television ahead of the album's release as a way of emphasizing its importance, but you can't fully appreciate the track until you hear it through good speakers or headphones. These lines stick like glue to my bones:
I can't go ghost, I face demons
Don't let it defeat you, all in my hands
I know it's hard for you to come out that trance
I look myself in the mirror when I can
There was a quiet moment in the discussion between our parking space and the festival gates where I told Laura about those lines standing out. She agreed. We didn't discuss it much further, but in the days since, I've been struck by how our mutual appreciation of these lines may reveal some deeper thoughts and battles we've not yet discussed. Music is cool like that.
Riot Fest is a playground for alt music fans young and old with disposable income and the ability to spend upwards of twelve hours on your feet in September heat. We kept our time on sight to just a few short hours, but we filled that time with a slew of performances that were more than worth the price of admission (as if the people watching alone didn't accomplish that). A few thoughts:
- Just Friends is a ska-adjacent punk band from the Bay Area that is doing for kids today what No Doubt did in the 90s. Their unruly approach to songwriting and performance creates a welcoming space where good vibes are in high supply and worries are nowhere to be found. Thousands of mostly maskless people surrounded us during a global pandemic happening during the hottest year on record while countless wildfires burned away a myriad of trees, but for the duration of Just Friends' set, those problems did not exist. All fears and concerns of life were temporarily erased as the so-called JFC (Just Friends Crew) staked their claim at the 2022 alternative music crown.
- Seeing Bearings perform material from their latest album, released in November 2020, was a blessing. The band sounds as good as ever, and their fans are incredibly receptive to the new material.
- Watching Gwar play to people who have never seen Gwar before is a joy that never ages.
- Riot Fest continues to be the one place in America where anyone who listens to punk, emo, or anything associated with outcast culture is guaranteed to feel less alone. Do you want to see someone wearing a Fall Out Boy shirt from 2004? You'll find at least three on any given day. Prefer to meet people with Every Time I Die tattoos? You'll find dozens. Everyone is welcome.
After three-plus hours and roughly 10,000 steps, we made our way back to the car on empty stomachs and low phone battery. The sun was now high in the sky, and our bodies were beginning to feel the kind of soreness you only discover after the age of 30. Laura made a joke about how she could not fathom when she would spend twelve hours in a Warped Tour parking lot, and I replied by saying I would never spend twelve hours in any parking lot. I go to festivals for the bands I cannot see anywhere else, and I try to be on-site long enough to see as many of those artists in the shortest amount of time possible. After that—I'm out.
"But James," you may be thinking, "you said this whole trip was for Riot Fest? Why would you leave in the middle of the afternoon?"
Laura and I share a mutual love of 90s country music. Our families are from the holler (is my New England showing or speech to text fail?), and we grew up knowing names like Garth Brooks and George Jones long before we knew of Eddie Vedder or Dave Grohl. We were raised on country songs that tried to balance traditional genre songwriting with the demands of an increasingly pop-friendly audience, and sadly, most of those artists have faded from the spotlight. Those that do remain tour primary as nostalgia acts performing in gigantic venues in the southern US where country radio still reigns supreme. Laura and I don't live in those places, so we try to catch those who venture further north whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Sidenote: Laura has a fantastic story about seeing John Michael Montgomery trip over printer paper during a public appearance. I won't spoil the details here, but you should ask her about it if you ever get the chance.
In the days leading up to Riot Fest, we realized that one such group, Brooks & Dunn, was performing at a venue just outside the city on Saturday night. We had to sacrifice seeing Run The Jewels, Rancid, and Taking Back Sunday, but the men responsible for bringing line dancing to the masses were too high on our joint concert bucket list to ignore. With that, we used an app to buy two seats dead center roughly fifty rows from the stage for less than $40 total and let our inner children live their wildest yee-haw dreams.
Keeping in mind that by the time Brooks & Dunn hit the stage we had already attended two massive events and walked roughly seven miles in the preceding twenty-four hours, the show felt like a dream. For the entire length of their set, Brooks & Dunn delivered one classic track after another, playing two dozen hit songs in total. The crowd was a fraction of what the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater could hold, but nobody seemed to mind the empty seats because they made it possible for people to dance.
As songs such as "Neon Moon" and "My Maria" echoed across the Illinois plains, we jumped and spun and did a little do-si-do, just as the gods of country music intended. It felt freeing in a way that shows rarely do because everyone around us was losing themselves in the moment. There were few, if any, phones hoisted in the air. People were living for that night while it happened, and the catharsis of live music's return, which was present throughout the weekend, coupled with the freedom you feel through dance, amplified the emotion of the night to dizzying heights.
On the drive back to our hotel, we once again listened to The Melodic Blue. Having already played the more aggressive tracks multiple times over to keep up moving as our bodies grew tired, our focus turned once more to record's more heartfelt moments. "16," the album's closer, talks about a delicate relationship between Keem and a young woman that appears on the verge of collapse. It seems they've both done wrong, and Keem is wrestling with his role in the making a mess of their love:
My mama mad at me, I know I fucked up big
My girl mad at me, I know I fucked up big
What's love? I guess I'll never understand
Every time I say sorry, I do that shit again
Check, check, check, I made a promise
That I would never leave you stressed, I would be honest
I should have never sent that text, I will be honest
I'm sorry for the things I said, I will be honest
It's funny that an album as bold and original as The Melodic Blue would end with ruminations on a story as old as time. Keem is learning the price of fame and questioning whether the result justifies the sacrifices he makes and the pain his choices can inflict. He truly wishes to be a better man for his woman and his family, and I believe he's trying to get there, but the dreams he's chasing come with a price tag that he won't fully grasp until the bill is already overdue. The best he can hope to do in the meantime is make the most of the time he has with those who matter most, and he's hoping that's enough. Then again, aren't we all?