A familiar affair in South London…

Baby Keem is carrying a hefty weight on his back, spreading his appeal across ever-evolving expectations that fly from all angles. The Gen Z are spoilt for virality, straddling between the greats, the hard-hitting or the straight-up bizarre and random. The fleeting nature of TikTok would fool one into thinking this is an easily achieved blend. Let’s get one thing straight, it’s not. Shifting our attention to the head-scratching, slightly older rap crowd, they have been introduced to Keem as part of XXL’s 2020 Freshman Class, a moniker that has classically felt hit or miss, but at its best has pointed towards the potentials of Future, J. Cole and Nipsey Hussle. It’s also hard to ignore his older cousin’s, whom you may know as Kendrick Lamar, close involvement in Keem’s rise, securing a spot on the socially aware Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and partnering with his company, pgLang. To some extent, it is an insignificant fact to Keem’s artistry but equally, not all of us can call Kendrick Lamar our cousin.

This is all to say that if you’re looking for a clear view of Electric Brixton’s stage for the twenty- year old’s headline show, good luck. The standing floor is crammed to its brim, embellished in strings of fans huddled along the balconies and those hopelessly debating on which step to stand on to give them that extra centimeter of height. Yet, it is a slow, meandering bare piano that ushers fans in, an unusually ambitious way to upkeep the youthful euphoria bouncing across every wall. Although in some ways an unnoticed aspect to the broader performance, it is in these details that Keem establishes himself distinct from his peers and leaning towards the energy of those he looks up to, resistant to the obvious answer to warm up his crowd.

A thunderous bolt hits the stage, and Keem takes his power stance at centrestage for debut studio album opener ‘trademark usa’. From the get-go, the riser is conscious in his movement that switches between the rigid and free, reflective of his laser-focussed flows that play between the deeply introspective to the jumbled. The performance hones in on Keem’s nonchalant beat-switches that steer the crowds from mosh pits into chiming along to Rosalia. Humbled in black Converse, a shirt and a tie, the riser follows up with the tumbling pianos of ‘hooligan,’ reining in his crowd with the more lowkey project cuts.

“London, what the fuck we doing tonight!”

Unafraid to dip into the more intimate moments that tend to reserve themselves for the final leg of the evening, Keem strolls back to a blacked-out stage for the haunting ‘scapegoats.’ Sharing personal verses eye-to-eye with those front-stage who are religiously following line for line, it’s an undeniable highlight that reaffirms the importance of vocal delivery and practise. Other moments that earn their mention are ‘HONEST,’ making a return to 2019 project ‘DIE FOR MY BITCH’ and capturing the stage production at its most effective, matching the track’s warmth with an amber sunset fog as Keem heads into the more challenging sing-a-longs.

Well immersed into the evening, the rapper is joined by gameshifter Don Toliver for ‘cocoa’ and piece together a resonating performance of ‘OUTERSPACE.’ Yet, there is the sense that eyes and ears are distant for one, inevitable reason. Kendrick Lamar has just skipped off the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, he is in the UK and who can’t help to wonder if he’ll make a stop off tonight. There is a suspicious amount of last-minute turn ups from those placing all their bets on a guest appearance from the Compton legend, and who can really blame them. Unfortunately, it’s for this same reason that tracks like ‘range brothers’ fall flat on their face, overwhelmed by desperate camera phones that anticipate Lamar’s verse and are met with disappointment. In some ways, there is slight relief in this acceptance that allows the following likes of ‘scars’ to elevate, meeting the poignant fan favourite with an illuminated room of flashlights who unite as one. “Why this life you gave so hard? What all the choices that I make leave me with scars?”

It’s always a good sign when fans fail to resist chanting for their artist within a second of leaving the stage. Charging back into the flames with ‘family ties’, crowds now take in the Lamar feature with less expectations and lose themselves to its flying flutes and distorted bass.  

“You’ve got Kendrick Lamar in the building…”

Correct. Turning the room upside down, the two dive into back to back rhymes, sharing an electric bounce off of one another’s energy. Without detracting from Keem’s artistic individuality, it’s hard not to acknowledge the lingering essence of his cousin to his approach across the evening. There is a cadence, an intent and furthermore choreography in each track that emulates his cousin, seeing them morph into one onstage. As Lamar leans over Keem delivering the relentlessly strong verse of ‘vent’, the two go on to sample new material that inevitably wins big. As the evening draws to a close, any rap fan is left with the sentiment of gratitude, witnessing the contemporary genius hand the torch down to his following generation and anticipating Keem’s climb to new heights.

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Words: Ana Lamond

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