Honorable Mention: In a year where most mainstream rap albums not named Donda disappointed — looking at you Tyler, Jeffrey, Aubrey — and the genre was instead held aloft by such idiosyncratic hip hop upstarts as Bladee, MIKE, Pooh Shiesty, and JPEGMAFIA (as well as Doja Cat and Trippie Redd’s more radio-friendly contributions), Baby Keem occupies a strange liminal space. Content to remain an enigmatic MC across an array of features early on — a bid to stave off accusations of nepotism, certainly — Keem spent recent years catching attention for his distinctive high-pitched vocal whine, spitting all mess of hubristic juvenalia before just as easily sliding into melodic crooning. The recipe was ripe for breakthrough: possessing (or at least emulating) cousin Kendrick’s vaunted knack for boastful bars and syrupy slick flow, and after a pair of persona-building mixtapes, there was plenty of reason to anticipate what the rapper’s first studio production — expanded budget, talent pool, and all — would bear out.
The smorgasbord-style record that The Blue Melodic ultimately proved to be likely wasn’t what most expected, and it led to a notably mixed (if positive-skewing) response from critics and fans alike, but there’s legitimate appeal to be found in Keem noodling with the past decade’s worth of hip hop influence. Trap-heavy and littered with plenty of cooing and autotune, the product scans as pop-rap amalgamation: “16” sounds remarkably like a Views-era Drake cut, “scars” samples Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” — Keem loves the 808s — and “issues” features soft, minimalist production that could have easily been produced on Fruity Loops software circa 2004. If that all sounds too jukebox-y in conception to afford Keem the space to express a cogent, developed voice, that’s not off-base exactly, but it also results in an album that’s as genuinely surprising track-to-track as any this year, buttressed by legitimate skill — look no further than the rapper’s pummeling, propulsive first verse on Kendrick-collab “family ties,” or his slick flow switch-up on “south africa.” This production mode of recent rap history sampling isn’t a process that will be able to repeated, the threat of anonymity bleeding into extensive relistens of The Blue Melodic and prompting one wonder who exactly Hykeem Carter is when he’s not being someone else, but the alternatively sleazy and silly pleasures offer plenty of immediate gratification, and his craft seems primed to transcend if he can set aside his curatorial instincts and instead develop something more distinctly Keem. At the beginning of “vent,” Kendrick asks, “Have you ever been punched in your motherfucking face?” The Blue Melodic hits something like that: not likely to make a lasting impression, but landing with force in the short term, unignorable and leaving listeners at attention for what comes next.