Status Ain't Hood

Lil Baby And The Era Of Zoned-Out Singing-Rapper Dominance

Rappers sing now. It’s a given. It’s a part of the landscape. This is not new. Things have been moving in this generation for more than a decade. Fifteen years ago, T-Pain released an album called Rappa Ternt Sanga, and its title was a lie. T-Pain was rapping and singing at the same time. These days, that’s what almost everyone does.

We’re to the point now where Kelefa Sannah’s recent Post Malone GQ Style cover story devotes significant real estate to the question of whether or not Post Malone counts as a rapper. The answer to that question, by the way, is this: It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. Rapping and singing merged long ago into one amorphous, gelatinous whole. We’re now in the second or third generation of sing-rappers absolutely dominating the charts. That’s baked in. Today’s youngest rap stars have never known a different reality.

Last year, I thought we might be seeing a course correction, a reversion back to straight-up rap music. The sudden ascents of stars like DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion suggested that hard, barred-up, technically precise rapping might be enjoying a comeback. Thus far, it hasn’t really happened. Those cases have been relatively unique and isolated. Instead, melodious trap crooners like Roddy Ricch and YoungBoy Never Broke Again are on their way to becoming the biggest rap stars in the world.

Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” has had a chokehold over the #1 spot on the Hot 100 for eight weeks and counting. NBA YoungBoy continues to put up absolutely baffling YouTube numbers despite being constantly in and out of jail. Last year, he was the most-watched artist on all of YouTube. It’s crazy. In the past six months, YoungBoy has released two albums. The first, 2019’s AI YoungBoy 2 debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts. The second, last week’s Still Flexin, Still Steppin debuted at #2, behind BTS.

Before I get into the main subject of this weeks’ column, we have to say a few words about NBA YoungBoy. I initially wrote this column about both Lil Baby and NBA YoungBoy, but the entire phenomenon of YoungBoy doesn’t fit into a neat narrative about changing rap aesthetics. Back in late 2016, I wrote that YoungBoy could be a huge star if he could keep himself out of prison. I was wrong. He is a huge star, and he can’t keep himself out of legal trouble.

YoungBoy is in the same zone as people like Kodak Black and the late XXXTentacion: All shockingly popular, all undeniably talented, all troubled and unwell and dangerous people who probably owe some of their appeal to their scary, disturbing outlaw bona fides. YoungBoy has a terrifying history of shootings, assaults, and domestic violence. He recently finished a house-arrest sentence when a judge let him off early, and he’s supposedly moving to Los Angeles and looking to change his life. I hope he does.

On the surface, Lil Baby, the 25-year-old Atlanta sing-rapper who’s also currently vying to get into rap’s A-list, has a whole lot in common with NBA YoungBoy. Both have had legal issues, though Baby was done with his before he began his rap career. Both are from the Southeast; Baby’s from Atlanta, and YoungBoy is from Baton Rouge. Both of them are young, and both of them have stage names that emphasize that youth. Both of them came from the underground mixtape world, and both of them made it out of that world relatively quickly. Both work quickly and release large volumes of music. And both are huge. But where YoungBoy is making jagged and bruised music about his own problems, Lil Baby is something closer to a traditional star — a smooth and accessible voice who flexes hard while hinting at deeper things. Lil Baby also doesn’t seem to exist at the center of a maelstrom of violence, so that’s a plus.

On Friday, Lil Baby released his new album My Turn on Friday. It’s already projected to debut at #1, above Bad Bunny. (Bad Bunny and BTS, it’s worth mentioning, both do a fair amount of sing-rapping themselves. The sing-rap takeover is a global phenomenon.) Part of the narrative surrounding My Turn is that it’s Lil Baby’s grand return. Within one year-and-a-half stretch, between 2016 and 2018, Lil Baby released seven full-length projects, albums and mixtapes. But My Turn is only his second proper solo album, and it’s his first project since he released the Street Gossip mixtape in November of 2018. He took all of last year off from releasing music, and now he’s ready to claim his spot. This narrative is, of course, absurd. A 14-month break from full-length releases is not a break at all, especially if you constantly crank out collaborations and one-off singles during that year. If anything, Lil Baby is more omnipresent now than he’s ever been — a constant semi-detached melodic hum that’s become part of the cultural fabric.

The semi-detachment might be the problem. Before he started his rap career, Lil Baby spent two years in prison for selling weed. In a recent New York Times interview, Baby talked about detachment as a sort of survival strategy, one that still serves him. This is how he describes what how he coped in prison: “Like, just, you’re there, but you’re not there. It’s a mental thing: ‘I’m in here, and I just got to get through it.’ When I got out, it was the same thing. I’m just there, but I’m not there. Even for good stuff.” You can hear it. My Turn is not a triumphant victory lap. It’s a solid hour of numb, blurry mood music.

Lil Baby is good at this kind of mood music. His voice is a craggy, high-pitched mutter. He skates effortlessly over beats, even when those beats are ugly and demanding monsters like DJ Paul and TWhy Xclusive’s vintage Memphis crunk revivalist headbanger “Gang Signs.” Lil Baby has a strong sense of the way his voice operates in space, of the ways that he can find tiny and repetitive hooks within the wordy double-time weaving of his flow. His lyrics are often money-talk boilerplate, but sometimes he makes them compelling: “I spent five hundred racks on a Lambo/ And didn’t even know how to make that motherfucker go.” And he’s got an ear for vibed-out, hypnotic production. The musical palette of My Turn is determinedly muted and minor-key, full of strings and amniotic bass blooms and barely-there drums. Lil Baby wants you to zone out to this. You can.

The constant zone-out gets old, though. At 20 songs, My Turn is almost comically overlong. The album has tons of guests, and those guests come from different generations. Some are influences: Lil Wayne, Future, Young Thug. Some are contemporaries: Gunna, Lil Uzi Vert, Moneybagg Yo. Some are even proteges: Rylo Rodriguez, 42 Dugg. But all of them come from the same general sing-rap template that Lil Baby uses. I never get the sense that Lil Baby wants to break out, to push himself. Maybe this is the right decision. Maybe he doesn’t want to interrupt the flow. (Lil Baby had a hit last year with “Baby,” the probably-inevitable team-up with the similarly-named DaBaby, but the two made a slightly awkward pair.)

Lil Baby doesn’t cravenly chase hits the way his contemporary A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie does. But he also fades too easily into the background. In interviews, he’s been saying that he’s ready to level up, to compete with the Drakes and Kendrick Lamars of the world. If he wants to do that, I think he’s going to need to drop the distance, to become less of a craftsman and more of a character. And yet the potential is there. Lil Baby can be a star. He certainly sounds the way rap stars sound at this moment. Other newly minted stars — Roddy Ricch, Rod Wave, Trippie Redd, A Boogie — have that same melodic sensibility. To a large extent, that’s what rap is now. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is what it is.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Lil Uzi Vert – “That Way”
The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” is a perfect piece of music. Lil Uzi Vert has turned it into a heartbroken fugue. I love that.

2. BBY Kodie – “Tony Moly”
An 88-second burst of snotball energy from a 17-year-old Houston kid, yammered over a beat that sounds like a Godzilla-sized Speak & Spell malfunctioning. SoundCloud rap’s not dead!

3. Kenny Mason – “Metal Wings”
Angry emotive screaming over looped-up guitar crunches, lost-in-the-world Spotify-core melodies over 808 booms. A guitar solo. Everything is rap music, and rap music is everything.

4. MaxThaDemon – “Demon Flow”
I need to know so much more about this kid that I already know. I need a 10-part Netflix documentary about this kid.

5. 2 Chainz – “No TV”
2 Chainz sounds like he’s having fun, and he also sounds like he’s whispering some ancient incantation. You shouldn’t be able to do those two things at the same time.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO