A good Kendrick Lamar feature can be a launchpad. Just ask a musician like Rapsody, whose star rose after she went toe to toe with K.Dot on To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” or Zacari, the singer who signed to Top Dawg Entertainment after smooth features on DAMN. and Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack. Lamar’s latest, the long-awaited Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, boasts one of the rapper’s more stacked guest lists with a verse from rap legend Ghostface Killah, a rare appearance by Portishead singer Beth Gibbons, a skit starring Zola’s Taylour Paige, and three songs featuring rapper non grata Kodak Black, among others. But more than anyone, the person who best uses that Kendrick shine is the person he’s been working with the most of late: Baby Keem.
Before Mr. Morale, Lamar’s biggest recent appearance since his 2018 Black Panther soundtrack was on Baby Keem’s debut album, The Melodic Blue, last September. Lamar guested on three songs: the single “family ties,” another proper feature on “range brothers,” and “vent,” where he provides the hook and outro. The songs were fine, showcasing Lamar at his most loose (who can forget his “Top o’ the mornin’” moment on “range brothers”?) as Keem shouted and squeaked over shiny, expensive-sounding beats. Keem (born Hykeem Carter) is a capable rapper, but his solo music can feel as if it’s trying to be too serious, a possible effect of the 21-year-old artist looking up to Lamar, who is his cousin and signed him to his company pgLang. From those collaborations, it was hard to see what Lamar saw in Keem other than literal family ties.
Mr. Morale is a different story. Keem comes in at the midpoint of the double album’s second volume, “Mr. Morale,” on “Savior (Interlude)” and “Savior.” In the interlude, he raps an arresting two-minute reflection on his childhood, relationships, and success: “You ever seen your mama strung out while you studied division? / Your uncle ever stole from you day after Christmas?” His trademark shouted passion is on display as he raps his ass off, speeding up and slowing down to switch up his flows over a building strings section. On the following song, Keem doesn’t get a verse, only asking on the hook, “Are you happy for me?” He twists the line to connote different emotions, one of the skills he’s clearly studied from Lamar. It’s just enough to get the line stuck in your head long after the song ends.
Keem seems to be one of K.Dot’s most content collaborators right now — just read through the credits of Mr. Morale, on which Keem co-wrote and co-produced “N95” and “Die Hard” and even played drums on the latter. He doesn’t seem to be bristling in the shadow of one of the biggest rappers of our time. But it says something that one of his best performances ever comes on “Savior (Interlude),” a song in which Lamar doesn’t even get on the mic. Lamar’s presence in the studio still seems to push Keem, but without his big cousin there to steal the spotlight, Keem gets to stretch out and shine as himself. To put it in Lamar’s words, he’s not Baby Keem’s savior — Keem may be his own.