Artist To Watch: BabyTron

Lestyn Park

Artist To Watch: BabyTron

Lestyn Park

“Nah, I wouldn’t scam your mother, probably not.” Michigan rapper BabyTron tells me this with an enigmatic smile on his face while we sit at Paul’s Da Burger Joint on the Lower East Side. Tron is in New York to promote his new album Bin Reaper 2, released last week. Earlier in the day I tried to take the 21-year-old and his friends to a ramen place. After checking out the menu, he looked at me like I had two heads. Tron knows what he likes to eat, and it is not ramen restaurants that NYU students frequent after film class.

His music exists in a particular comfort zone too. BabyTron falls in the Michigan rap-scene tree that I like to call “dirtbag rap,” in which tales about drug dealing, scamming, and violence are mixed with black comedy and outlandish self-deprecating statements. In recent years, Michigan has captured the minds of rap fans all over, blurring the lines between regional rap and the mainstream like the Bay Area has done over the years. Lil Yachty, from Atlanta, has even caught on to the wave, spending time in the Great Lake State and dropping Michigan Boy Boat, a solid album that features Tron, Rio Da Yung OG, Babyface Ray, and other Michigan stalwarts. (Yachty is the weakest aspect of the album, but it’s a good showcase for the talent of the Michigan region). Tron, who started out doing scam-rap with his ShittyBoyz group alongside StanWill and TrDee, is one of the best rappers in the region and is becoming a household name for his punchlines, basketball references, and ability to rap over any beat, no matter how unconventional it might be.

BabyTron was born James Johnson III in the Detroit suburb Ypsilanti. Growing up, the internet led him to all types of rappers beyond his local scene: Cash Out, BandGang, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Uzi, Keef. Like many other Michigan kids, he played basketball but stopped after his hoop dreams deflated. Although he came to realize he wasn’t cut out for the league, hearing his friend rap convinced the oh-so-confident Tron he could have a future as an MC: “I thought I could do it even better — not that my friend was wack, but I knew I could be better. Then I started making music, and everyone was fucking with it.”

As a rapper, Tron started out in a similar vein as Teejayx6 and his scammer raps. But where Teejayx6 is a financial accident waiting to happen, a devilish kid who might end up in FBI’s Detroit field offices one day, BabyTron is a mixture. Yes, he has the scam raps, but he also has pop culture references, basketball bars, and lines about women: “My OnlyFans girl give some fire head, she on demon time.” Tron pulls out references that could only come from his brain (Chipper Jones?), and he likes performing on weird beats. On this past June’s Luka Tronic mixtape, he rapped over the theme song from The Office. This bit has undoubtedly become tiring and trite after several New York drill rappers started rapping over things like the Mr. Softee theme, but Tron makes it work with his lyricism. “The Office” never descends to the level of a viral Twitter video. It’s a real song because of Tron’s flow, which is laid back even at the pace of your heart after two lines of cocaine.

People look at Tron differently from other Detroit rappers because of his slight frame and light skin tone. He’s a lanky motherfucker with a build like Trae Young and a similar complexion, which tends to make listeners think of him as a white rapper and therefore more of a novelty. The omission of the word “nigga” from Tron’s music probably contributes to that perception. Tron isn’t white; he has a Black dad and a white mother. Still, it’s impressive that he has not become a full-on meme in a climate that wouldn’t waste any making him one. Tron knows what he is doing, is self-aware about it, and has the talent to develop it further than something you would see on your 16-year-old’s TikTok. Tron’s mixtapes are solid, particularly Bin Reaper and Luka Tronic, but his music — and the Michigan rap scene in general — is best consumed on YouTube. Typing BabyTron into the search bar will lead you to gems such as “Cade Cunningham,” named for the Pistons’ #1 overall pick, and “Cowabunga,” where he claims his girl “sucks dick for no reason, she’s a mind reader.”

When Tron first emerged with the rest of the ShittyBoyz, he was part of a scene — a key member of a specific region, style, and group. The biggest thing scam-rap had going for it was that it was hilarious. When you consider hip-hop’s complicated relationship with violent crime, it was funny to hear these young dudes rapping about scamming like it was drug dealing. If you felt like Tay-K’s life blurring into the music was a step too far (there’s arguments both ways), then scam-rap was the alternative, a fun but still artistic view of late capitalist America in the Trump era. Tron isn’t quite that artist anymore. “I still do some scam shit, but it’s different now, I am more of a fully fleshed rapper,” he says while eating his burger. This is a good call by Tron. On his new album Bin Reaper 2, he finds pockets on beats that sound like they should be hits on TRL. “Everybody Hate Tron” reminds me of “Did It Before” from the Carter III sessions, with Tron dipping and diving like a swimmer in a more relaxed flow than we are used to hearing from him. Tron is comfortable rapping over samples both unconventional and standard (“Next Level” should satisfy those with a soul sample fetish), and he never compromises for accessibility. If BabyTron is a meme, it’s news to his music.

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