Status Ain't Hood

Lil Baby & Gunna Are The Best Rap Duo In Years

There was this rap-video cliché in the late ’90s. The rapper would jump out a window, with police chasing him. Or he’d be in a boat, with DEA chasing him. Or he’d be face-to-face with the sworn enemy that we met four minutes earlier. And these words would flash across the screen: “To be continued…” It was always a lie. We never saw how those stories turned out.

That was also the case with the 2014 mixtape Rich Gang Tha Tour Part 1. Everything about that title turned out to be wrong. The mixtape was supposed to introduce us to the dynamic duo of Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, the two Atlanta rappers who were going to ring in a whole new era of Cash Money Records. The tape existed to hype up an arena tour, and it also existed to hype up the idea of these two as the future of Cash Money. It was the beginning of something beautiful. Except that it wasn’t.

Pretty soon after the mixtape came out, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug, who had seemed truly close, started beefing with one another. Soon afterward, neither one was connected with Cash Money. Not only was there never a Part 2; there wasn’t even a tour. All these dates had been printed up, but apparently nobody had bothered to so much as contact the venues. Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 was the beginning of a story that would never be completed.

But Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 is its own story. The tape sounded amazing when it came out. It sounds even better now. It’s a classic of 2010s rap music, a case of lightning striking. Here we had two talented rappers, innovative guys who played around with words and flows and melodies and bent Atlanta rap music to suit their own needs. They pushed each other. They had chemistry. They loved rapping together, and you could hear the symbiotic energy crackling between the two of them. They were paired up with a producer, London On Da Track, who understood both of their voices and knew how to use them. Everything about it just worked, to the point where it was hard to even feel sad about the story ending, since what we happened to get was so magical.

There’s some cosmic poetry in the similarities between Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 and Drip Harder, the new mixtape from Atlanta upstarts Lil Baby and Gunna. The two mixtapes came out in the same time of year — four years removed from one another, almost to the date. Once again, we’ve got a pairing of two young Atlanta rappers, both of whom are on a serious career upswing. Baby and Gunna are both melodic rappers, and they’re both studio rats, guys who will crank out one song after another in quick succession. (Between the two of them, they’ve released six solo mixtapes in the past two years.) They’ve got chemistry, and you can hear the exhilaration in both of their voices when they rap together. They’ve got a producer who understands them. They’ve got energy working for them, like all the planets are just now aligning in their favor. It’s almost like someone planned it.

Maybe someone did plan it. Both Baby and Gunna are distinctly post-Young Thug rappers, rappers who were very clearly inspired by that guy’s entire loony approach. Gunna is a straight-up protege, one who was all over Thug’s Slime Language project a couple of months ago. Lil Baby merely sounds a whole lot like Thug; his squeaky delivery and yowled hooks are direct descendants. And when Thug shows up on the Drip Harder track “My Jeans,” he more or less hijacks it with a bugged-out hook that’s way longer than any of the verses. Gunna and Baby are both directly inspired by Thug, even more than Thug was directly inspired by Lil Wayne. They are his kids.

But look at what they’ve done with that inspiration! Drip Harder is an album that finds its groove and stays there. Baby and Gunna are two of those rappers who make perfect sense together. One of them will start up a strange, off-kilter melody, and when the other starts his verse, he’ll take that melody and run with it, twisting it up into his own shapes. They’re both yelpy and slurry, with voices that can radiate exhaustion and excitement at the same time. And yet they’re different enough that the tension between their voices produces great things.

Gunna is a technician. His syllables come out in fast, breathless clumps. He’ll focus on one single vowel sound and hit it from as many angles as he possibly can, his voice turning into a blur: “I parked the Bentley inside the garage / I don’t know how much hate I can dodge / I can get you knocked off with a nod / 4 Pockets Full, everyone get a knot.” Sometimes, he’ll chop his flow into discrete phrases, slowing down so that everything means something: “Don’t approach, I’m armed / Flawless diamond charm / All my spots alarmed / Big house feel like a dorm.” His first line on the tape feels weirdly iconic: “Coupe from outer space / Trust me, I’m OK.” He does the impossible, and finds multiple things to rhyme with the word “orange”: “foreign,” “charms,” “formed,” “arms,” “worn,” “join us,” “yours.” None of them really rhyme, but if you’ve got a thick enough Atlanta accent, they sort of do. And Gunna has a thick enough Atlanta accent.

Even though Gunna mostly raps about money and fashion and street supremacy, he finds goofy, funny ways to do it: “I feel like a child, I got boogers in the face / Diamonds dancing in the dial like this shit is a parade.” But with Gunna, it’s not so much what he says as the breathless rush with which he says it. When Gunna really gets going, his syllables come out like a breathless drumroll, or like rain on a rooftop. Gunna’s got his own flow, and even though he’s only been on the national stage for a year or two, you can already hear people imitating him. It’s hard to do. As a stylist he’s got few equals. (I thought about calling Gunna “the mumble-rap Pharoahe Monch,” but then I typed that phrase out and looked at it and started to hate myself. So I am definitely not calling him that.)

Lil Baby, on the other hand, is more about hooks and melodies. Gunna can do those things, too, but Baby is way more effortless with it. He doesn’t usually rap as fast as Gunna, but he makes his words resonate. He comes up with ridiculously cool little turns of phrase: “In Dior, they call me ‘Mr. Baby,’ they know who I am,” “They cost a band, I probably won’t wear them again.” And there are moments where his concision can start to sound like wisdom: “I’m from Atlanta where young niggas run shit / I know they hating on me, but I don’t read comments.”

Lil Baby is more emotional than Gunna, too. He raps about meaningless sex as much as anyone, but he does it with a sense of perspective: “If she tell me no once, I won’t even touch it.” (Compare that with guest Lil Durk, whose putrid rape-happy line on “Off White VLONE” — “Gotta suck dick on your period / You can’t say no, I ain’t hearing it” — is easily the worst thing about Drip Harder.) Both Baby and Gunna get a couple of solo tracks on Drip Harder, and where Gunna uses his to flex on further, Baby devotes one of those slots to the tender relationship song “Close Friends.” There’s a story to the track, almost like it’s a country song. Baby has cheated on someone he cares about, and he alternates between defensiveness, explaining how he’s not really at fault, and naked apology, begging her to take him back. He knows he fucked up, but he’s not quite ready to face it: “I told the truth, that I’d been lying.”

As good as that song is, Baby and Gunna sound better together. A lot of that comes down to producer Turbo, who handles the bulk of the mixtape, including all the best tracks. Turbo works within the Atlanta-trap format, but his style is subtle, driven by quiet and moody tones. At times, his tracks sound like mutations of psych-rock; the floating acoustic guitars of “Business Is Business” and the aquatic float of “Belly” are just gorgeous. Turbo gives these two a sound — one that’s in conversation with everything else happening in rap right now but also one that sets them apart.

But it’s not just the sound, and it’s not just the way they rap. Lil Baby and Gunna are real-life friends, not business associates, and that warmth shines through. They’re both young, but they’re not insurgent SoundCloud-rap teenagers. Gunna is 25, two years older than Baby, and he’s a total older-brother figure. Baby started rapping after getting out of prison on a two-year weed charge. And Gunna has said in interviews that he more or less taught Baby the nuts and bolts of how to rap — how to ad-lib his songs, how to save his tracks to his phone. That’s a real bond, and it gives me hope that the collaboration will keep going after Drip Harder.

Lil Baby and Gunna have something else that Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan didn’t have four years ago: They’ve got a huge cosign from the biggest star in rap. Lil Baby and Drake have already teamed up once. “Yes Indeed,” from earlier this year, was a huge hit. And while it’s hard to upstage Drake on a song, Baby might’ve done it; his “waah waah waah, bitch I’m Lil Baby” line is the best thing about the track. Drake shows up again on “Never Recover,” the last song on Drip Harder. On that song, Baby raps about the team-up with a sort of bemusement: “Drizzy hit me up, like he got another one / Money ain’t even come in from the other one / Fuck it, I’m hot, so I might as well double up / Seem like everything I get on a number one.” Smart move.

On that song, Drake tries out the Gunna flow, going with a blistering fast-rap barrage. It’s easily my favorite Drake verse of 2018. It’s an absolute masterclass in imperious shit-talk: “You told a story like shorty was feeling you / She told a story like she split the bill with you / Look at my story, man, no one could write it / Now I see a million, I don’t get excited.” Drake was not going to get overshadowed on a Lil Baby track again. But even with Drake operating at full capacity on this song, both Baby and Gunna find ways to make impressions.

Consider this Gunna line: “Ain’t no comparing, cuz we number one / In black and white Chanel, I look like a nun.” This guy is on a song with the biggest star in music today, and he’s bragging that he looks like a nun. We need more guys like that. And now we’ve got two of them. Lil Baby and Gunna had already arrived. But with Drip Season, it feels like both of them have arrived. To be continued.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. A2: “Flair” (Feat. Octavian, Yxng Bane, & Suspect)
The Super Mario Bros. coin-flying-up-in-the-air sound effect might be the greatest popular-culture sound effect since the Wilhelm Scream. More than 30 years after the Nintendo Entertainment System hit the market, that sound effect is still making its presence felt in frothing UK posse cut bangers. What a journey! (Shout out to Harley Geffner’s Passion Of The Weiss column The Rap-Up, where I first encountered this song, among many others.)

2. GMGB Daidough: “Wop 4 Wop”
A New Jersey rapper finishes up a prison term, and he comes out determined to yell out every slick punchline that occurred to him while he was locked up. Magical. (Shout out to Aphonse Pierre’s Pitchfork column The Ones, where I first encountered this song, among many others.)

3. AzChike: “Licked Up” (Feat. LowTheGreat)
God bless California, where they’re still rapping over what sounds like a car door slamming.

4. Doeman: “Barrio God II Intro”
Doeman is a Mexican American rapper from Texas, and even when he’s talking shit about how hard he is, there are some ferocious lines about Donald Trump and his wall in there. And those are the moments that grab me by the gut.

5. DJ Muggs & Roc Marciano: “White Dirt”
“400 long up under the floorboard / Where I was born was more like World War IV / Don’t compare your dog to these cornballs.”

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO