Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Baby Keem, Kacey Musgraves, Low, Sleigh Bells, and Andrew W

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

Another Friday has passed us by, leaving some very enjoyable albums in its wake. This week’s releases offer up some hilarious hip hop bars, grieving of relationships and non-stop partying!

Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue
Released September 10, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

You’d be excused if you weren’t familiar with the name Baby Keem. At only 20 years old, the Californian rapper already has a massive claim to fame under his belt: he is the baby cousin of Kendrick Lamar. With a family tie like that, there is no way Keem couldn’t be on everyone’s watch list. So how is the album?

In short, it’s fine. Keem doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but there’s only so much you can ask from a young trap rapper. One thing Keem does deliver is a lot of fun. This album feels parallel to Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” in the way that this isn’t necessarily a great album but people won’t care anyway because it is fun enough to get by. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does make this album a rough listen at times. Keem is incredibly young in his lyricism, with many of his bars about women coming off as very juvenile. You can’t exactly fault him for writing like a kid since he is still pretty young, but I’m not that much older than him and still can see how uncomfortable some of the lines come across. Either way, he never exactly crosses into malicious territories or says anything more obscene than most trap rappers out there. If anything, it feels slightly disappointing given his older cousin’s involvement as Kendrick has created some of the most revered modern hip hop albums.

That brings us to the elephant in the room: what is Kendrick doing on this album? There has been much talk about his goofy flows on “Family Ties” and “Range Brothers,” especially on the latter. I’ve seen more people quote the “top of the mornin’” line than any hip hop lyric in years. It’s nice to hear Kendrick again, but it feels like he’s playing up the goofiness to match Keem. Keem feels like he has two flows, which works fine for a few songs but not a whole hour long album. If there is anything else Keem has, it’s two phones. Seriously, how many times does he tell the listener he has two phones throughout this album? Thankfully not enough for him to get two stars.

There are some gems to be found here. Both the Kendrick featured songs are fun, “Cocoa” has a great beat, and “Scars” is an interesting change of pace from the rapping Keem delivers throughout the rest. Unfortunately, many tracks breeze past without leaving much of an impact. This is a great party album but not a great listening album. “Durag Activity” and “Trademark USA” would fit in with that atmosphere very well. I am genuinely interested to see how Keem develops as an artist.

Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
Folk Pop
Released September 10, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Many Kacey Musgraves fans seem to be in denial that she is a country artist so they don’t have to admit they like country. Kacey seems to have picked up on that and made her least country sounding album yet. This stylistic change coincides with a massive life change for the singer as this is what many are considering her “divorce” album. Kacey herself even stated so herself, and every song details her healing journey following her seperation.

While “Golden Hour” was pretty in a pastoral and natural way, “Star-Crossed” is gorgeous in the shimmery, hazy and synthetic way. Kacey’s voice is often covered in reverb and phasers, giving her voice a floaty quality to it. She even experiments with autotune at certain points, giving her words a more disconnected feeling. I mean that in a positive way, as it helps convey her anguish. The production here is also great, as songs like “Justified” and the title track feel like they are gently floating around your headphones. The way guitars fit into the mix feels more like gas filling up a room instead of a wave of sound washing in.

Fans of Kacey’s older music will not be too alienated, as there are plenty of songs on here that take from her older work. Country and folk are not too far apart, and tracks like “Angel” and “Hookup Scene” show that she can still pull from her older catalogue to fit in with her new aesthetics. “Breadwinner” and “Cherry Blossom” even give some room for the listener to dance due to the synthpop influence those tracks have. I have to say, despite this being an album written under very sad circumstances, it doesn’t sound overbearingly sad. This is the rare healing album that is spawned from a divorce. Kacey is going to do better for herself, and she is using this album to make her fans hold her to it.

Experimental Rock
Released September 10, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

While the days in which Low had been near the top of music discussion among listeners have passed on, they are certainly no pushover in the industry. Having some of the most celebrated indie albums of the 90s and 2000s under their belt, Low are at the very least a legacy band who still get by through name recognition in the indie scene. Thankfully, they are much more than that after 25 years of music. “HEY WHAT” shows that they still evolve their sound and deliver exciting music no matter what.

Low had started off as one of the cornerstone artists of the slowcore movement before slowly shifting throughout their career to include more elements of dream pop, post-rock, and more recently, drone and industrial music. While their albums over the last decade have seen these latter elements seep in, they saturate “HEY WHAT.” There is rarely a discernible drum beat or guitar riff, as most of the instruments are just swaths of noise. Alan Spearhawk and Mimi Parker both sound incredible vocally, and it is interesting to see how they trade in their usual instrumental textures for the approach they go for on this album.

As far as I can tell, no one is credited for keyboards on this album, so it seems almost all of the sounds either come from Parker’s percussion or Spearhawk’s guitarwork. The sounds that are pulled from the guitars are unrecognizable, but they allow a soundscape to be born that feels unlike anything else in this context. “Days Like These” and “The Price You Pay” are the two songs that resemble standard song structures the most, albeit a lot nosier. The epic “Hey” feels like gliding over an ocean of static with your feet just barely grazing the waves as you stay just afloat enough to not be swallowed by the sea of sound. A lot of this album feels like you are hovering just above total destruction. The production is blown to smithereens, but it works for an album like this. You are directly above the distortion instead of being wrapped in it, allowing you to pay attention to the overall soundscape this album provides. A lot of the album flows together as well, with the opening punches of “White Horses” and “I Can Wait” feeling more like one extended number instead of two separate cuts.

This will no doubt be a hard listen for most people who are not familiar with Low or more noisy genres. Still, it is not too overly experimental that most people won’t be able to get into it, but it is just at the edge of turning most people off of it. In my opinion, most people should give this a shot as they too might find it to be one of the most ethereal and inventive albums of the year.

Sleigh Bells – Texis
Noise Pop
Released September 10, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Have you ever had someone show you a band, and it turns out the person who introduced you to that band was not a great person? That was my relationship with Sleigh Bells. I never exactly liked what I heard from them, but the association with the people I knew who liked them didn’t help. Despite this, I thought I would give them another try for this review.

Sleigh Bells have not done much to match the critical reception of their debut album a decade ago, but they really came back hard with this new one. In retrospect, you can easily see the influence the band has had on modern pop music. The rise of the PC Music label, hyperpop, 100 gecs and other maximalist things all can be drawn back to Sleigh Bells. “Texis” shows that the band fits better in today’s musical landscape than any other point in their career prior. Electropop and electroclash have fallen by the wayside, but it can easily come back if utilized like this. “An Acre Lost” and “Knowing” are great examples of how Sleigh Bells keep these styles fresh, while “Locust Laced” and “Justine Go Genesis” are absolutely bonkers ragers. Most of the album can be described like that, and at only just over half an hour it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The songs do leave something to be desired in their intensity and variation. While the album is short, there could’ve been a bit more variety in some songs. The surf rock break in “Locust Laced” and the R&B elements of “Rosary” are excellent, and I wish they incorporated more things like that throughout the album. Still, this is likely the band’s best project to date and one that I think many people will enjoy.

Andrew W.K. – God Is Partying
Heavy Metal
Released September 10, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

Does the name Andrew W.K. ring a bell for you? If not, then you might remember a little Cartoon Network show called “Destroy, Build, Destroy.” Andrew W.K. was the host of said show, but he was a musician before that. His whole schtick was that he was here to party. The opening track to his 2001 debut album “I Get Wet” is titled “It’s Time To Party,” and he never stopped.

While W.K.’s music might be a little too boneheaded for some people, that’s the entire point. It’s all dumb, loud hard rock that puts a smile on your face. W.K. plays all the instruments on this album, and he does a really good job at making this thing bombastic. “Babalon” is the obvious standout track with its swirling keyboards and soaring vocals. Despite being 42, W.K. sounds a bit older, but it fits the music very well. There is a cheesy 80s quality to this album, as well as most of his music in general, that just hits the spot between utterly stupid and completely genius. Even the ballads like “No One To Know” or “Remember Your Oath” stick the landing, which is a lot to say for a heavy metal album. There is a lot of AOR influence as well, such as dichotomy between the verses and choruses in “Stay True To Your Heart.”

This album does sound good and is performed well, but it lacks the pure insanity of W.K.’s older work. While I do appreciate the tribute to metal of the late 80s and early 90s, I sometimes feel like I’d rather go listen to the artists he is riffing from. Still, W.K. is having fun, and it’s awesome to see someone out there who only cares about making sure the listener is having fun.