The rookie of the year, in most sports, isn’t just about who filled up a particular stat sheet every night. It also isn’t just about studying a particular player within a vacuum, never forecasting their talent past the first year. Instead, the rookie of the year is a player that not only is the most promising skill-wise, but one that breeds familiarity with the greats that came before them. The rookie of the year is a descendant of greatness positioned to take the torch. Given that understanding, evaluating talented prospects in hip-hop, a genre already overstuffed with artists and releases, can be tricky. Finding the most balanced prospective superstars, the ones who carry all the qualities necessary for success and acclaim while maintaining the authenticity that made them popular in the first place, narrows the field to only a handful of artists.
Hip-hop in 2018 has encapsulated this delicate nature of identifying the next generation of rap stars more than most. It’s been a year brimming with eclecticism from the genre's younger talents, from Tierra Whack’s abbreviated but electrifying Whack World to Gunna’s loose and understated Drip Season 3, to names like Valee, Trouble, Leikeli47, 03 Greedo, CupcakKe, Maxo Kream, and more. Yet, for all of the newcomers who have established a seat at hip-hop’s grown-up table, none seem as primed for the head seat as Lil Baby, Atlanta’s burgeoning new star rapper.
In a year full of breakout artists willing to either venture into the avant-garde void (Valee, Tierra Whack), or attempt to perfect the aesthetics of their art with projects that value consistency in sound and tone (Gunna, Greedo, Leikeli47), there is something to be said for the familiarity of an artist like Lil Baby. He is an artistic hybrid who survives off his own unique traits but thrives based on the atoms of other rappers that occupy a large portion of his genetic makeup. Born Dominique Jones and raised in Atlanta, Lil Baby’s sound and style find an essential balance between distinctiveness and resemblance that every successful artist requires to stand out in a flood of new music.
Lil Baby’s entire 2018 has been a case study in the importance of connecting your voice to the voices who inspired your art, and his debut album is a prime example. Harder Than Ever works because it connects the essence of Lil Baby—his high-pitched inflection, varying melodic styles, cartoonish punchlines—with the traditionalism of Atlanta rap and the best of the trap sub-genre. Harder Than Ever never finds Lil Baby reinventing the wheel, but it is an inspired creation made in the vein of the inventors before him.
Harder Than Ever's highest peaks come when Lil Baby's singularity blends with a familiar sound or style. Tracks like “I’m Straight,” “Leaked,” or “Never Needed No Help” feel similar to the way Future has mastered the art of introspection without sacrificing the enjoyability or lyricism of his most emotional moments. “Transporter” uses Offset as a soundboard to contextualize the stylistic flourishes of Baby's cadence and style while allowing the audience to mark the differences between the Migos sound and his own. Even “Life Goes On,” the album’s definitive high and one of the best songs of 2018, contains the show-stealing DNA of ATL superstars like Jeezy and T.I. in its confidence and swagger. All the while, Lil Baby cultivates his own particular potential for superstardom and becomes fully realized within the confines of the track.
“Life Goes On”, in particular, feels like Lil Baby’s artistic watershed moment; his 40-point, triple-double outing that we all remember by season’s end when awards voting arrives. From Quay Global’s production to the transition from Baby’s infectious hook to Lil Uzi Vert’s magnificent closing verse, the track spells perfection and doesn’t feel accidental in the slightest. It’s a manufactured masterpiece in all the best ways; a showcase of Lil Baby’s talent that sets to prove he’s capable of not just carrying a hit, but dominating one. “Life Goes On” is a rookie performing like a seasoned veteran, calm and collected at the album’s biggest moment.
While it's obvious listening to Harder Than Ever that Lil Baby's ceiling for success is higher than any of his contemporaries, he also has the rare trump card that is the Drake co-sign. With two single releases this year accompanied by Drake—the tumbling and dreary “Yes Indeed” that spawned the very self-aware and ridiculous “Wah wah wah, bitch I’m Lil Baby” meme, as well as “Never Recover,” the standout from Baby's joint project with Gunna, Drip Harder—Lil Baby has guaranteed himself popularity. Paired with his already keen sensibility for hit-making, working with Drake feels almost borderline unfair to the rest of the rookie field.
Still, Drake collaborations only feel like the first wave of stardom for an artist like Lil Baby, a 23-year-old who, despite only beginning to rap two years ago, has accumulated over 15 million monthly listeners on Spotify. As easy as it is to draw comparisons from Young Thug to Gunna, the same could be said for the connections Lil Baby’s music and career have to an artist like Future, a much more successful mainstream act who has managed to consistently deliver critically praised projects year after year. Forecasting Future’s enormous success onto Lil Baby’s 2018 campaign would be somewhat premature, but the balance with which Lil Baby has found his own sound as an artist, while inspired by the methods and music of prior Atlanta artists, is promising enough to at least tease the possibility.
With another project (Street Gossip) due out before the end of November, Lil Baby’s 2018 rookie campaign isn't even over. For an artist clearly adept at positioning himself to continue growing in both popularity and skill, releasing even more music appears to be a wise decision. In a year packed to the rafters with burgeoning talent capable of becoming staple names in hip-hop over the next decade, Lil Baby is 2018’s rookie of the year because he’s one of the few young artists who we can view as more than the sum of their potential. He’s demanding we focus on what he’s already achieved.