Lil Baby & Lil Durk Are Rich Off Pain

Michael Thomas

Lil Baby & Lil Durk Are Rich Off Pain

Michael Thomas

You ever had to sleep on a leaky air mattress? It’s the worst. You lie down on the thing, and you hear the hissing sound right away. So you scramble all around looking for the leak — they’re never easy to see — and then you find the hole and try putting duct tape all over it. It never works. The air starts digging little tunnels in that tape, like a groundhog, while you sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night on bare floor. Bike-patching kits work a little better than duct tape, but even there, you’re just waking up on the floor a couple of hours later than you otherwise might. You’re just not getting good sleep until your whole air-mattress situation changes. Lil Durk knows.

On “Still Hood,” one of the tracks from the new album The Voice Of The Heroes, Durk mentions a leaky air mattress as one entry in a whole catalog of degradations: “Auntie fucking in the bedroom/ I had to sleep inside a n***a bathroom/ Putting duct tape on the air mattress, so the air wouldn’t really leave from.” (The idea of a leaky air mattress in a bathroom is something I don’t even want to contemplate.) A line like that is what makes Durk so vital. As successful as Durk is — and right now, he’s very successful — he keeps these past hardships close at hand. Sometimes, they aren’t even past hardships. Sometimes, they’re still grinding him down.

The Voice Of The Heroes, as you presumably already know, is the new collaborative album from Durk and Atlanta’s Lil Baby. We’ve been getting a fair number of these team-up albums in the six years since Drake and Future made What A Time To Be Alive six years ago. Usually, albums like these are victory laps from dominant stars. They’re not canonical works. Instead, these are summit meetings where two stars greet one another on an even level — game recognizing game. That’s absolutely the case here. Durk and Baby are both coming off of triumphant, dominant years, and they’ve always had chemistry together. On the latest piece-of-shit DJ Khaled album, the Durk/Baby collab is really the only thing that deserves a second listen. The two of them make sense together, and it makes sense that they’d want to celebrate each other’s success on this tape.

But a huge part of what sets both Lil Durk and Lil Baby apart — what makes them so resonant right now — is that both of them keep sadness and trauma front-and-center in their music. It can’t be a coincidence that Durk and Baby both reached peak stardom during a year of pandemic and protest. Baby addressed the latter head-on on “The Bigger Picture,” while Durk continues to suffer loss after loss in full view of the public. Last year, Durk’s friend and collaborator King Von was gunned down just as his career was starting to ignite. There’s a song on The Voice Of The Heroes called “Rich Off Pain,” on which the track’s guest hook-singer, fellow sadness-based star Rod Wave, describes the whole situation for all three of these guys: “I came from walking through the rain, prayed for better days/ And now a n***a rich off pain.”

Money is a cure for a lot of things, but it doesn’t cure pain. The Voice Of The Heroes isn’t an album made with great care or consideration. It’s pretty easy to tell, just from the dashed-off cover-art, that Durk and Baby recorded this record quickly, both sticking to their lanes and doing what’s already in their complementary skill sets. The album’s title is supposed to be a combination of the two rappers’ nicknames, but it comes off looking like the name of a post-9/11 benefit compilation. That title is a first-draft thing. Just about everything on The Voice Of The Heroes feels like a first-draft thing. That’s not even a complaint. It’s just what it is.

I think this choice was intentional. Durk and especially Baby are both in places where they could easily attain full crossover pop stardom if they chase it. Instead, the album works as a reaffirmation of their attachment to the raw, from-the-gut street-rap that comes naturally to both of them. That makes these tracks sound a bit like Atlanta-trap boilerplate. Durk came up in the first wave of Chicago drill, but he’s always drawn on the Future melodic-moan model, and he sounds most comfortable on trap beats. Baby, meanwhile, is a pure creature of the Atlanta trap star system. The Voice Of The Heroes is overlong and slightly numb; it’s the kind of streaming-service bait that can easily fade into the background. But once you tune into what Durk and Baby are doing, it’s also a pretty strong rap record, if only because the pain always stays right-and-center.

Durk, in particular, refuses to let the pain fade. On his own records — like The Voice, the album he put out just a few months ago — Durk often gets a little too raw, to the point where I worry about the man’s wellbeing. Team-up albums usually aren’t the place for that kind of emotional intensity, but Durk still gets into it sometimes on The Voice Of The Heroes: “I know how it feel to have the killers tell you everything/ I know how it feel to wake up cut up from them bed springs.” (Between the leaky air mattress and the bed-spring cuts, I’m a little concerned that Lil Durk has never had a satisfying night of sleep in his life.) On the very first line of the album, Durk laments the cost of past incarcerations: “Missed out on my kid’s life for a year, and I gotta accept it.” He can’t stop talking real shit.

Lil Baby is an emotional rapper, too, but he rarely gets as raw as Durk does. Instead, Baby is a stylist and a technical marvel. He can bend the singsong flows of his hometown into fast, sticky flurries. Durk has a more varied style than Baby does; more than once on the album, Durk goes back to the hard, flattened bark of his old drill comrades. But Baby is less erratic. He always sounds solidly locked-in, like he can’t be distracted from slathering the sound of his voice all over these tracks. While Durk sounds like he’s still immersed in street shit, Baby celebrates the fact that he’s starting to feel free of it: “When I get older, I might have back problems, these Cuban links big as hell/ I done fucked M’s up with these lawyers, tryna get my n***as out of jail.”

But when he talks about his time in prison, Baby sounds just as present as Durk. Both of them trade memories of locked-up life, and it’s clear that those mental scars haven’t healed. Baby remembers the specific dangers and discomforts and humiliations in sharp detail: “They don’t tell you about the other part, taking showers with your boxers on/ If you ever go to prison, buy a knife before you buy a phone.” Durk, meanwhile, gets existential about the guilt of being a father unable to be there for his kids even before getting locked up: “I had to sleep with my gun when I was booked, I wanted to sleep with my son.” For an album that’s largely about triumph, The Voice Of The Heroes is implacably sad.

Right now, mainstream rap seems to be in a cycle of extended mourning. Some of our biggest stars right now are no longer with us. (Just one instance: Durk and Baby moved their album release back a week to make room for DMX’s posthumous LP Exodus.) Even the biggest rappers seem to be stuck addressing loss and depression and addiction and numbness. And the losses keep piling up. This past weekend, the same weekend that The Voice Of The Heroes came out, Durk’s older brother OTF DThang was shot and killed in Chicago.

I know what it’s like to sleep on a leaky air mattress, but I don’t know what it’s like to beat the odds, to make it out of poverty, and to still keep watching friends and family die young. I can’t imagine that. Rap music reflects the society that created it. Right now, our biggest rappers are rich off pain. That means there’s a lot of pain out there.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. RunitupTahj – “Go RiRi” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Sada Baby just jumped on a viral TikTok rapper’s song, talking about “my shooter watch you like Hulu, we get more cheese than the Goof Troop.” Bless him.

2. 42 Cheez – “Mo Murda”
That Bone Thugs flip on the hook is so hard.

3. Meek Mill – “Flamerz Flow”
Meek Mill has been sounding exhausted lately, so a conscious return to his hungry mixtape roots is well-timed. He can still go there. He can still do that. I like how he gains more steam as this very short song goes on.

4. Evidence – “All Of That Said” (Feat. Boldy James)
You realize we’ve now gone about six months without a new Boldy James album? We really got spoiled with those last year.

5. FishXGrits – “The Sequel” (Feat. Benny The Butcher)
Benny is clearly sleepwalking here, but he still wrecks the track so calmly.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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