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R & B / Hip-Hop Rookie of the Year 2021 – Billboard

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As an extension of Billboard’s R & B / Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month series – which featured emerging artists such as Tems, Pooh Shiesty, Blxst and Foushee – the editorial team honors our first-ever Rookie of the Year. The annual award will be presented to an artist whose exploits and musical achievements have cemented them as a being to watch for years to come.

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Baby Keem

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Baby Keem, the signatory of pgLang / Columbia Records, has had a whole year. After a handful of singles and an acclaimed freshman album, Melodic blue, who debuted at No.2 on the Billboard 200 chart, the 21-year-old Vegas-raised rapper has gone 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 played on Tonight’s Show with Jimmy Fallon, dominated music festivals and was the headliner of his first tour. Driven by a “do it my way” mindset, Keem looks back on the lessons, successes and challenges of his landmark year below.

There is a concept I believe in: that my best form of guidance is not to be guided. Because in reality the best advice I have is to make my own decisions and do it my way. And that’s the real peculiarity of it all. [Touring has been] a huge learning experience. Learn to take care of myself, my body, how to avoid trouble. How to control boredom at times and rest when I need it. You just feel the next day [if you don’t], and then you try to do whatever you can to stop that feeling before you go on stage, and you don’t want to feel that way. So you try to control yourself.

I think the foundation that Kendrick and I forged with our team and just working together and ultimately getting that first [album] outdoors have been my proudest moments of this year, for sure. It was the dream, the perfect collaboration that we had. And these collaborations mark our relationship. So if you wanna know how our relationship is, listen [“Range Brothers” and “Family Ties.”] You could feel it, especially in “Range Brothers”. This is the moment I’m most proud of, plus the Grammy nominations and [successes] that’s from the album, the videos we made and the celebrations we had as a team.

One word I have locked out is “intentional.” Melodic blue is very intentional, even with songs spread across all genres. It’s not a modern offering in terms of doing what everyone else does – I do my own thing – but I take inspiration from what’s going on [around me]. From a compositional point of view, the music is in the future.

When it first came out, it was all praise. But of course there are people who don’t understand it because they are so used to what is going on. They even go so far as to say that it is experimental, when in reality I am not experimenting: these are sounds that people should hear. It’s all music. I think people have lost their perception of what music really is the last few years. So when an intentional and well-composed offering occurs, they are afraid of falling in love with it, or they are very protective of it. They call it experimental. But in reality, it’s just music. The only experimental thing about the album is that it has some pop songs and then a [rap] song like “Trademark USA”.

Melodic blue is similar to the name Andre 3000. In 10 years we will be able to listen to this album – and like the name Andre 3000, it will always be in the future. Melodic blue is Andre 300, in album form. We took where the music was and merged it with where the music goes, which is basically what new ideas are anyway. Each new idea takes something that was somewhere before and revolutionizes it. That’s what TMB is, in the space of 2021.

My music is growing as I think it should. The right people respond, the shows do what they should. People respond to music the way they should, and they create their own point of view from it. That’s all you can really ask for.

A Grammy nomination is something I have wanted for a long time. Seeing that happen is pretty cool and is a testament to the work that we have done. I think my manager told me when this first happened. I was on tour, it was a surreal moment. It looked like a sort of validation, but it wasn’t at the same time. It’s weird – I don’t know how to explain it, but it was just nice to have it. It doesn’t define anything, but it’s great to be a part of it. It was a victory for everyone. But there is more work to be done. I want two more next year. It honestly motivates me for my next project.

My process is completely different now compared to manufacturing Melodic blue. People won’t know how to say it 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 happens to you so quickly. But then you come to your tenth or twentieth time and you feel comfortable. You’re just on a cruise. You can take your time and really pace things and think about things in a new way because you have this experience that you didn’t have before. I feel like this is 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, give it and family enjoy in the process. I’m 21. This is the meaning of my life today, but tomorrow it might be different.

As told to Neena Rouhani.