Words by Torry Threadcraft
Images by Rahim Fortune
Fashion by Jason Rembert
Production by The Quadri Group
“Some shit is just out of pocket,” says Lil Baby. Over the phone from his Georgia home, he’s in the midst of explaining his perspective on the media’s tenuous relationship with rappers. “Keep it goddamn cordial. Some shit is clickbait. And some shit draws attention. But it’s deeper than that.”
The 26-year-old rapper has had a complicated run with the media, so it’s not hard to understand why Baby is speaking on the subject with such conviction. Gossip blogs dissect his relationships on a near-weekly basis, while fans speculate about beef between him and his labelmates on social media. Little did he know, two days after our conversation in March, his performance of his song “The Bigger Picture” at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards would generate both praise and criticism from those very outlets. Though Baby is guarded from letting the press into his private life, he’s more than open to speak about anything else, and is otherwise as candid as can be.
In just four years, Lil Baby has attained all the signifiers of modern rap excellence — hyperproductivity, a heavy presence on the charts, and a growing list of successful neophytes — and it only took him about half as long as it did for his predecessors. That new career trajectory, for better or worse, comes from Atlanta’s Gucci Mane by way of New Orleans’ Lil Wayne. From 2005 to 2009, Gucci, like Wayne, tinkered with his style over the course of some 25 albums and mixtapes. He has dozens of cult classic records, but most importantly, he crowned future rap royalty like Young Thug and Migos, cementing his own legacy in the process, and changing the metric by which a rap star is judged. “No matter how much hard work I put in, I blew up quick,” Baby admits as we reflect on this phenomenon. “I know it’s people who work ten times harder, who never got half of what I got. I did. 100 percent.”
Between 1994, when Baby was born, and 2005, when the rap industry was undeniably shifting towards Atlanta, the hottest street rapper in Atlanta getting a Grammy nod would be a shocking accomplishment — impossible, even. Lil Baby’s on his third nomination so far, and as we speak, he admits he hasn’t really decided what he’d do if he won. “Believe it or not, I don’t even know,” Baby said sheepishly. Even though he didn’t end up winning the awards for Best Rap Performance or Best Rap Song, 2021 is shaping up to be just as big. Baby’s been teasing a full-length project with Lil Durk for weeks, and has recently appeared in the studio recording for DJ Khaled’s next album. “You know they don’t give you the awards the same night...by the time I see it, I won’t even care about it.”
Lil Baby was born Dominique Jones in Atlanta’s Oakland City neighborhood, just months after OutKast released their debut album. By the time he was ten years old, Atlanta’s rap renaissance was in full swing. In over a decade, rappers with staying power — and a slew of one-hit wonders alike — shifted the hip-hop ecosystem to a new capital. With the new epicenter came a new ethos amongst both rappers and fans.
Though Baby was an avid listener during the genesis of the snap and trap music eras, he never gave much thought to rapping. According to him, his adolescent perspective as a listener--as opposed to an aspiring rapper himself--is the reason he’s been so fortunate: “I’ve got an ear for music. I was into music before I started [making] music. That’s how I’m so successful.”
After multiple stints in prison from 2012 to 2017, he got out and found himself in the studio with then-gambling buddy Young Thug. Thug was finally steadying himself in the industry after a drama-filled entrance, working with Elton John, Wyclef Jean, and international acts like afrobeats star Davido and Popcaan. As the story goes, Thug paid Baby to leave the streets and focus on recording. “He literally paid me to leave the neighborhood,” he told XXL in 2019. “[He said], ‘bruh you can rap, you got it. You could be next. You gotta leave the ‘hood...I’ll pay you to come to the studio.”
As fate would have it, Baby also crossed paths with one of the industry’s unsung heavyweights: Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who at some point managed heavyweights of every Atlanta rap generation: Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy, Rocko, Gucci Mane, and most recently Migos and Lil Yachty. “Coach K is one of the main reasons why I'm in music,” he says. "I’ve known Coach K for a long time. I saw him work with different artists. But we never really talked about music. It was more on a tip of like, I need to rap, maybe. But we never really got into it.”
According to Coach K, it took some convincing for Jeezy to make music as well. “Jeezy wasn’t even rapping,” he told VICE in 2015. “He was on some CEO shit. He wanted to be Master P...He played a record and I was like, ‘who’s that?’ He was like, ‘that’s me, but I don’t fuck around like that. This is my label, I’m CEO.’ He’s 21 years old…He played me two more records. I’m like, ‘nigga you the one!’ He was like, ‘nah man, I’m playing around.’ But then he was like, ‘man, you really like my stuff?”
While most of the world became aware of Lil Baby from the Drake co-sign on “Yes Indeed” or “Drip Too Hard” in 2018, Atlanta was officially put on notice a year before that with “Freestyle,” trance-inducing anthem with no hook that is nearing half a billion views on YouTube. For someone who hadn’t rapped seriously before, it’s no surprise he didn’t realize how big it would be. “Thug was going out of town to Miami,” Baby said of the night he recorded it. “I’d just pulled up on him to chop it up. But when he left, his engineer was still in there and I just told him ‘find some beats.’ I wasn’t really taking rap seriously at the moment. I played it, I had this song forever. My cameraman decided to put some clips together and put the song on YouTube. It went viral. That was the first video I had on YouTube...Freestyle [wasn’t] one I thought would be a hit immediately.”
Through his continued relationship with Coach K, Baby had his sights set on broader horizons than the usual upstart rapper. Coach K always tags along on international tours, and the connection has led to songs with UK rap group D Block Europe. Coincidentally, Davido--who grew up between Atlanta and Lagos, Nigeria, happened to be in the studio with Thug on the day Baby got home from his last bid. Just a couple of years after their first meeting, Baby was performing alongside Davido in Lagos.. Baby also appears on his latest album, A Better Time. “That was one of those moments where you know anything is possible in this world,” he explains. “My first day, when I came home, I met Davido then. He just had that cool vibe, cool dude. Every time I would see him out, he would always speak to me. I knew who he was, so we’d see each other at Icebox or at a restaurant, he’d always speak to me. He caught my vibe, and I feel like he was a cool dude. So, to be able to go to Africa and be able to perform with him on the same stage is like... words can't explain it.”
Four years later, Baby says he’s about “98% accurate” on which tracks will blow up. Success in Atlanta came quickly, but it was “Drip Too Hard” that made wider success a possibility. “When that came out right after the Drake single, that kind of solidified me and put me in that game. That’s when I figured out it was way bigger than Atlanta.” Two of his biggest singles in 2020 feature Detroit MC 42 Dugg, who he’d met--you guessed it, gambling. Baby’s support led Dugg to a joint deal between his 4 Pockets Full imprint and Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group label. When we speak, Baby sounds more excited about Dugg and new CMG signee/collaborator EST Gee than his second and third Grammy nominations.
Two days after we spoke, Baby performed his protest-inspired hit “The Bigger Picture” at the Grammys. The song in itself is jarringly earnest: Every few bars he’s wrestling with American oppression and his own contradictions. Neither preachy nor pandering, it didn’t feel like a PR stunt—it was the cherry on top of an already record-setting year:tracks hitting the Billboard Top 10, the year’s first double-platinum album, which stayed atop the charts for over a month, and a deluxe version that earned him his biggest rap song of 2020 (“We Paid.”) Proceeds from the song went to the National Association of Black Journalists, The Bail Project, and Black Lives Matter. “I know a lot of people take those types of moments and try [their] best to capitalize off of them,” he says of the donations. “Not saying I didn’t capitalize off of it. But I wasn’t going for that. I was just doing it for the situation. And I didn’t want it to be like ‘you’re only doing this because [you] could get money out of it. So I want to let people know that the [money and accolades] wasn’t my [reason] for doing it. The George Floyd situation, people rioting in Atlanta, that was something I had never seen before. So I rap about what’s going on around me.”
Though rap stars can live comfortably off their success in America, the job remains one of the country’s most dangerous. On multiple occasions, images of Baby clutching a handgun during photos with fans have made the rounds on social media. Between heavy pressure from police and ne’er-do-wells alike, it wouldn’t be surprising for a rapper of Baby’s stature to want to escape. I asked him if he believed he’d ever be able to move in a less paranoid manner. “I don’t see that until I get older,” he lamented. “But even then, I see it being the same way.I think that’s more than likely going to be my life. I’m valuable.”
“I don’t even like listening to my own music all the time,” Baby explains at one point in our conversation. “That’ll mess up my creative process. You gotta know what’s going on in the music world.” Many creatives—admittedly or not—believe in taking a myopic approach to art consumption for their own sake, and some feel being too open to other influences could dilute their own creativity. “[I’m listening to] everyone before they blow,” he boasts. In fact, Baby sees himself becoming one of the biggest A&Rs in the industry, precisely because of that. It’s apparent that after he gained his footing in the game, Baby took cues from artists like Gucci Mane and ran with them: he keeps an open ear to music scenes besides Atlanta; his embrace of 42 Dugg only strengthened the already-bustling Michigan rap scene. Now that he’s indirectly facilitated deals for two of CMG’s biggest recent signees. The fact that Baby didn’t pressure either to sign with 4 Pockets Full or QC shows he’s in it for the love of the music. “A lot of stuff I ain’t going to say, because I know I don’t want to ride to it. So I’ve got to listen to what I want to ride to. I got the baddest cars, the baddest girls, the flyest everything. I don’t want to be listening to no bullshit.”
When we speak, Baby’s in the process of having a new house built. If he’d won the Grammys, he says he’d probably just put the trophy in storage. There’s too much at hand in the present. With the amount of money he’s bringing in and his connections overseas, I ask Baby if he’d ever consider moving abroad to live a more relaxed life. “I was talking to one of my managers about that earlier,” he reveals. “I can see myself moving to another country but keeping a spot here in the States, for sure. But I can see it. Nigeria was actually one of the ones we were talking about.” The constant search for new markets is a continuing theme for Baby, too. “I love [going abroad] because there’s so many different countries,” he says excitedly. “You could tour every state in America, but it’s almost impossible to tour every country, it’s like a never-ending saga.”
In the age of the rapper-turned-mogul, there’s now more pressure than ever to parlay (relatively) short-term success into generational wealth. While he’s on a hot streak now, Baby is making sure to keep the long term in mind.
“I’m trying to get everything I can get out of it,” Baby concludes. “On the short-term, I’m trying to make my business [ventures] equal to my on-stage performance. Making music and performing is like no-brainers to me. It doesn’t take that much. Now, I just got to handle my business while they’re giving me the money.”