“I been living what I wrote” —Earl Sweatshirt, “Grief”
Atlanta rapper Lil Baby rhymes in absolute truths and positive manifestations. His is a perspective that doesn’t sound abnormal to the ear because most rappers speak as if they are larger than life itself—the sons and daughters of Goliath, not David. Lil Baby doesn’t appear on tracks as a giant, though. His voice is light and fast as a skipping stone, but every word is an affirmation of his obsessive desire to succeed.
“Livin’ like we in a race, I might come in first and second but I won’t never be last,” Lil Baby raps on “Sum 2 Prove,” the Platinum-certified single from his second studio album, My Turn, released earlier this year. Impressive, the simple line illuminates the path and thinking that changed his life from a Southwest Atlanta street hustler to a world-renowned rap star.
Before recording his first rap song, Lil Baby, born Dominique Jones, attracted money and trouble through gambling, marijuana, and home invasions. His first arrest was at age 12. By the time he was 19, Lil Baby was a high school dropout stuck in a cycle of arrests that ultimately led to a two-year incarceration. The story is a familiar one for young black men who come into the world without a father while growing up in a country that systemically traps them in a vicious cycle.
Lil Baby’s material on My Turn, although triumphant, is about overcoming a life that nearly imprisoned him. Rapping—an art form he didn’t practice until after his incarceration—allowed the then 20-year-old novice a way of speaking and working a better life into existence. Once he chose to make music obsessively—a studio dweller with the spirit of an Olympian—this approach made all the difference.
Fellow Atlanta rapper Gunna, who taught Lil Baby how to rap, has a similar language to his lyricism. “I know my purpose,” Gunna says to begin “Baby Birkin,” a line we might find Lil Baby rapping in the studio. “Baby Birkin” is one of the standout singles off Gunna’s 2019 debut studio album, Drip or Drown 2. “Shit don’t come easy, nigga, it’s hard work,” he rhymes on the first verse, another example of how Gunna only speaks in absolute truths and intention. It’s their shared language, their verbal lineage, which makes them purveyors of truth.
“We keep winning because we working harder” —Gunna, “Baby Birkin”
Historically, hip-hop doesn’t reward the lazy or untalented; only the workers with equal parts drive and star power receive the fruits of their labor. Does Lil Baby have the potential career trajectory of a JAY-Z or a Lil Wayne, two iconic hip-hop success stories that grew from single-parent poverty to legends of rap? Both Carters are natural wordsmiths who outworked everyone in their peer group. That’s Lil Baby, a worker who raps diligently to make his dreams come true.
In retrospect, Lil Baby’s debut mixtape, Perfect Timing, was impeccably titled. The lyricist chose to begin his career in rap during the age of Quality Control, the Atlanta-based record label founded by Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas. Quality Control, better known as QC, signed Lil Baby before anyone knew his name. From the outside looking in, they picked a nobody, but through a different lens, they selected a neighborhood superstar who could speak for his people.
I remember the first time I heard Lil Baby’s name. It was 2017, sometime after the release of his breakout single, “My Dawg.” I was at a music industry mixer, and someone said, “Do you listen to Lil Baby? The rapper QC signed?” I replied: “Coach K signed a baby?” We laughed. “No, no,” they said, “he’s a rapper on the come up.” It’s funny how fast it all happened. One second his name is a meme, and then suddenly, Lil Baby is a rapper on the come up. Then it’s Lil Baby, number one in the country.
Timing is important in rap, from scheduling album release dates to how fast a flow should be to land perfectly in a beat’s pocket. Rappers who are ahead of their time will always arrive too soon, and rap artists behind the times will always show up late. That’s not always a bad thing. Time can catch up with forward-thinkers, and since history repeats itself, the late bloomers usually always have a second chance, too.
On the flipside, rappers who are right on time habitually find a way to two-step into the proverbial spotlight. In a 1990 interview with the L.A. Times, iconic record and TV producer Quincy Jones said, “I think Will’s a star,” referring to Will Smith, the then 21-year-old rapper who he chose to star in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the first-ever sitcom produced by Quincy Jones.
Why Will Smith of all people? In the 1990s, Jones could’ve secured any actor, artist, or entertainer to star in a show produced by a living legend. What made Will special?
Three months before The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered on September 10, 1990, he explained:
“He really makes it pop. He’s got this magical sense of timing that’s unbelievable. Right now he’s not even thinking about it; he’s just doing his own thing. He’s going to be dangerous when he finds out where the cameras are.” —Quincy Jones, “A Breath of Fresh Prince: Why NBC Has High Hopes On A Rapper From Philadelphia”
Time has always been on Will Smith’s side. He’s one half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, the first rap group to win a GRAMMY award; he’s also the first rapper from the MTV Generation to crossover and star on a major television network as the face of hip-hop for kids in the ‘90s. Then, he leaped from Bel-Air to the big screen with successful box office flicks like Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997).
Over time, Will Smith became a world-renowned celebrity who isn’t the greatest actor or the best rapper. But he pops. Smith’s natural talent developed into a skill gained through dedication. In that regard, Lil Baby is on the same path as Will Smith. Not in terms of his potential as an actor, but in his ability to call upon his natural talent to consistently create new opportunities for himself.
Remember, Will Smith was a rapper who began his career by speaking in absolute truths. Classic songs like “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble,” “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and “Summertime” are all records that sound exactly like their titles. They don’t masquerade as anything other than their essential elements. This is the language Lil Baby deploys with a deft hand.
When the cameras find Lil Baby—which they will—they’ll see a star. It’s his time.