In the calendar year of 1998, DMX came out with two albums: It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot in May, Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood in December. Both debuted at the top of the Billboard album charts. No rapper had ever pulled off a feat like that before. Almost no pop artist had, either. But DMX hit the ground running. He started off his rap career by immediately changing the landscape. When DMX showed up, everything before him immediately seemed corny. His guttural growl and dirtbikes-everywhere visual sensibility and general overwhelming hardness were game-changers. It didn’t last more than a few years. It couldn’t. Even if DMX hadn’t gotten himself into a continuing morass of legal trouble, rap trends change quickly, and the world would’ve moved on. But while he was on top of the world, he did everything possible to seize his moment. That’s exactly what DaBaby is doing right now.
There is a legitimate danger that this entire column is just going to turn into “let’s talk about what DaBaby did this week.” But when you’re rolling, you’re rolling. DaBaby is rolling. A year ago, if you weren’t somewhere in the Charlotte metropolitan area, you probably had no idea who DaBaby was. But 10 months ago, DaBaby had his first viral hit. Seven months ago, DaBaby released his first album. Last week, he released another one. And in between, he went on a complete tear, upstaging A-list rappers’ entire albums just with guest-verses. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” jumped to #1 immediately after DaBaby showed up on a remix. Lil Nas X’s “Panini” jumped into the top 5 immediately after DaBaby showed up on a remix, even though his verse on the remix was terrible. Right now, DaBaby is Lil Wayne in 2007. It’s amazing.
DaBaby raps a lot. That’s kind of his thing. He just raps. You wind him up, and he goes. It’s not even that he fires off great punchlines, though sometimes he does. (I like his bit about how he’s got girls knocking on his door like they’re Domino’s.) It’s more that DaBaby careens over tracks like an 18-wheeler with the brake line cut. He’s relentless. Over the past few years, we’ve seen rap turn toward melodic, insular, internal sounds. It’s been harder and harder to tell who’s a rapper and who’s a singer; everyone is muttering garbled emotional opiate-epidemic blues-whorls through smothering layers of Auto-Tune. That’s not DaBaby. DaBaby is something else.
We might be seeing a widespread reaction against what’s been derisively and simplistically referred to as mumble-rap. DaBaby and 2019’s other exciting rap newcomers — Megan Thee Stallion, NLE Choppa — are hard, raunchy, precise, energetic, specific. The members of that new breed all clearly really love rapping. You can understand every word they’re saying. In their music, you can hear excitement, hustle, impatience, and work. It’s not a rebirth of true-school New York rap. All three of those rappers come from Southern cities, and all three of them make club records. But all three are some rapping-ass rappers, and that represents a real sea change. (Polo G, who made the best rap debut of 2019, goes heavy on melody and Auto-Tune, but he’s also a more precise writer than most of his contemporaries. He’s a rapping-ass rapper, too.)
The real precedent for DaBaby’s tireless pace isn’t DMX or even mixtape-era Lil Wayne. It’s something like late-’60s Creedence Clearwater Revival, or late-’70s Ramones. He’s showed up with a bracing, exciting, new sound, and he turns that sound into these fast bite-sized chunks that he cranks out extremely quickly. The debut Baby On Baby and the brand new Kirk are both short albums — 31 minutes and 35 minutes, respectively — and both are just slight variations on the same style. But that’s fine. Half an hour of DaBaby — like half an hour of CCR, or half an hour of the Ramones — is pretty much the exact right amount.
Stylistically, DaBaby’s closest precedent is probably Ludacris, another Midwestern native who moved to the South as a kid. (Ludacris came from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and came to Atlanta as a teenager. DaBaby was born in Cleveland and moved to Charlotte when he was seven.) Like Luda, DaBaby is a guest-verse assassin. Like Luda, he’s silly, and he’s not afraid to be funny. Like Luda, DaBaby raps his punchlines quickly, emphasizing almost everything. Like Luda, he’s got a gift for rapping his own hooks. But Luda never came off like a tough guy, and he seemed out of his depth when he tried to be serious. DaBaby is a tough guy. He’s on camera beating a guy up, and he’s in the news for killing an assailant in a Walmart. And DaBaby can be serious when he needs to be.
We hear a bit of serious DaBaby on Kirk, especially on “Intro,” the opening track and first single. On that one, DaBaby reflects on his own losses, talking about the deaths of his father and grandmother. He considers what it’s like to see his career explode while he mourns his own losses: “They going crazy when they play it, head-bobbing and shit/ And I’m just somewhere fucked up, thinking ’bout my father and shit.” Elsewhere, he talks about smiling for fans while he’s spinning out of control inside. And just like every rapper before him, he talks about all the fake friends he’s encountered upon finding success: “When a nigga go home, I don’t answer my phone/ Everybody wanna leech, everybody want a load/ Everybody wanna talk, everybody wanna clique/ I don’t wanna be friends, and get off my dick.” But as soon as those moments are over, he’s back to the punchlines about money, cars, and success. Maybe he can’t wait to get back to them. Maybe that’s just what comes natural.
Unlike Baby On Baby, a rush-job put out to capitalize on an out-of-nowhere hit, Kirk seems positioned to be a big pop record. DaBaby’s got collaborations with big names: Nicki Minaj, Chance The Rapper, Migos. But those moments stick out in the bad way. I don’t put on a Baby record to hear Chance yelping or Migos slurring. The Nicki Minaj collab, a clumsily melodic relationship-talk travesty called “iPhone,” is the worst thing DaBaby has ever done. DaBaby makes more sense rapping alongside peers like Kevin Gates and Moneybagg Yo, the rapping-ass street-rap cult heroes who really laid the foundation for his success.
Mostly, though, DaBaby just sounds comfortable when he’s rapping. There are tracks on Kirk where DaBaby starts rapping before the drums even kick in. There are songs that end with the Bray Wyatt Fiend effect — the song just gets slow and ends while he’s still rapping. On the one song that has an R&B singer on the hook, the YK Osiris-assisted “Gospel,” DaBaby still raps half the damn hook.
The verve is infectious. DaBaby raps about seeing that energy out there in the world: “I give a fan a high five at the airport, she did a backflip.” He raps about the new sensation of being in places where he can’t bring his gun: “I’m on the front row at BET without my glock/ I’m ready to beat a nigga up like I’m the Rock.” He raps the best Eddie Murphy-related punchline I’ve heard in at least a decade: “I pull up with a bitch that’s so thick, think I’m Norbit.” He just raps. He raps and raps and raps. I hope he doesn’t stop rapping anytime soon.
Kirk will probably debut at #1. But DaBaby didn’t come in with the same kind of mystique that DMX had when he first showed up. Baby On Baby, without the benefit of deafening advance buzz, peaked at #7 on the album charts. So DaBaby won’t pull a DMX in 2019 — unless he puts out a third album by the end of the year. Don’t bet against him.
1. Bandhunta Izzy – “How To Rob” (Feat. The Madd Rapper)
Twenty years ago, 50 Cent stirred up a whole lot of shit by describing exactly how he would rob virtually every big-name rapper out. Bandhunta Izzy, from Baltimore, seems unlikely to cause similar chaos, and yet his bracing, ignorant, funny sequel is more fun than it probably should be. “See I was gon rob 6ix9ine, but he going to tell at the end/ I was gon’ rob young Melly, but he busy shooting his friends.” “Run up on Meek Mill, who you tryna yell at?/ Run up on Gunna, what’s in that Chanel bag?” “I was gon’ rob Lil Uzi with a big pump/ I was gon’ rob Lil Pump with a big Uzi.” (We didn’t need that Lil Nas X punchline, though.)
2. Wiki – “Eggs”
We haven’t heard anyone tear apart a Madlib beat like this since… Well Bandana just came out, so we’ve heard it very recently. But Wiki rips apart a Madlib beat differently, and I like the way he says the word “stupid.”
3. Ouija Macc & Starfox LaFlare – “Hiding In The Bushes”
I did not foresee face-tatted Juggalos bringing back the Ying Yang Twins’ whispering gimmick to talk about avoiding police, and I definitely didn’t foresee face-tatted Juggalos bringing back the Ying Yang Twins’ whispering gimmick on a really good, eerily catchy song.
4. Queen Key – “Make Me Cum”
Queen Key cannot be the first female rapper to come out with her own take on the “Suck It Or Not” trope, but I can’t remember anyone doing it this confidently or nastily before. I shouldn’t need to tell you this, but do not watch this video at work.
5. Sada Baby – “Tien N Yamcha”
As I am typing this, I am also learning that there’s a new 21-song Sada Baby mixtape out there in the world. There is too much good rap music. It’s like goddamn prestige TV right now. Who can keep up?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Andrew Barber (@fakeshoredrive) October 1, 2019