Most would agree that 2020 was a true shitstorm of a year, but it’s understandable that Lil Baby might have a different view of it. Speaking to NME over a Zoom call on one of the final days leading up to Christmas, the Atlanta rapper is ruminating on how he would describe the past year to his future grandchildren.
“I know for a fact that 2020 is going to be one of those years where we’re going to look back and be like, ‘Man, we got through that motherfucker’,” he says. But there’s a caveat. You see, for Baby, it was also “the best year of my life”. He pauses for a second and adds: “It’s been a hell of a story.”
You can forgive Lil Baby, who takes our call from what appears to be a parking lot of a luxury car dealership, for looking at the positives. Without question, it’s been a massive 12-month stretch for the trap star. Following 2018 debut ‘Harder Than Ever’, which included big-break Drake collab ‘Yes Indeed’, his second studio album ‘My Turn’ saw 26-year-old Baby (real name Dominique Armani Jones) claim his first US Number One upon release last February, with the record since going double Platinum.
The album’s deluxe edition, which followed in May, featured seven additional songs that were arguably even stronger than the original’s 20 tracks and earned Lil Baby his highest-charting single to date in ‘The Bigger Picture’, an impassioned response to the killing of George Floyd and global Black Lives Matter protests, which saw Baby rap: “I got power, now I gotta say somethin’”. That latter song also secured Baby two Grammy nominations – for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song – although many fans believed he deserved even more awards nods.
In a landscape where album sales can be bumped up by merch bundles and chart positions secured by strategic release date tinkering, it might be better to put the figures into a bit of context: ‘My Turn’ was recently named not only the most-streamed album of 2020 in the States, but the most popular album of the year overall as well. Its tracks racked up a mind-boggling near-four billion combined streams, resulting in a total of more than two-and-a-half million equivalent album units shifted. That’s more than The Weeknd, more than Post Malone and, quite unfathomably, more than Taylor Swift too.
Baby himself appears to have foreseen what a mammoth year 2020 would be for him. Before its release, he explained why he chose to name his album ‘My Turn’, telling fans in an Instagram Live video: “I feel like everybody else had a lil’ turn. It’s my turn now”. As it turns out, he was right on the money.
Lil Baby’s staggering rise wasn’t always a foregone conclusion, and the star himself hasn’t always been so sure of his path. Just four-and-a-half years ago, Baby was leaving prison after serving a two-year sentence for drug and gun charges, not yet convinced that his future would be in music.
In fact, this slight hesitance continued into Baby’s early career, and he’s spoken about how it’s taken him years to actually finally refer to himself as “a rapper”. “I went from telling people I ain’t a rapper to telling people this my life,” he recently told Vanity Fair. “Probably the last year-and-a-half… I had to make myself stop saying, ‘You ain’t a rapper’. I started saying I’m a rapper.”
“You can’t even imagine how far this is from where I come from,” Baby now tells NME. Finding himself at a crossroads after his prison release, he was persuaded to take rap seriously by a famous former schoolmate, fellow Atlantan and trap icon Young Thug, who made a rather unorthodox offer to Baby.
“I was in the neighbourhood and he was like, ‘What you doing in the neighbourhood?’ I was like, ‘You already know what I’m doing’,” Baby recalls. “So he was like, ‘Okay, how much money are you gonna make today?’ I was probably going to make like $7K, maybe $10K. He just went, ‘I’ll give you that – just go to the studio.’ Shit went like that.”
“You can’t even imagine how far this is from where I come from”
Thug – who, three years his elder, attended the same high school as Baby – recalled his side of the story on rapper T.I.’s ExpediTIously podcast last November, explaining that he instinctively saw something in his childhood friend and knew that he could make it: “I used to read that young n****’s captions on his pictures and call him like, ‘Bruh, you know you can rap’.”
Often when established stars look back on their struggling years, they portray themselves as having always known that they were somehow preordained to be the next GOAT. But this isn’t the case with Lil Baby. “I definitely didn’t see it,” Baby admits when asked what Thugger saw in him at that early stage. “Even if I thought I was going to be a big rapper and blow up, I could never imagine it would be at this level. [Young Thug’s success] definitely inspired me but I never thought that if it could happen for him then it could happen for me. I just went and did it…”
And he did indeed – after securing a deal with Migos’ Quality Control Music imprint, Lil Baby swiftly released his debut mixtape ‘Perfect Timing’ in April 2017, followed by his breakthrough mixtape ‘Harder Than Hard’ in July of that same year. Both mixtapes featured guest spots from Young Thug, then already a headline name in the game, among other ATL trap cohorts.
And while he may not have envisioned it himself though, Lil Baby says he’s eternally thankful for his friend and mentor’s unwavering belief: “He knew for a fact where I was going to be at today. Young Thug is a genius when it comes to music; I got to give him that.”
While Thug’s unorthodox nature is plain to see through both his lyrics and fashion choices, in some ways Lil Baby is equally hard to pigeonhole. ‘My Turn’ does much to show that Baby isn’t just one thing, its songs alternating between deep introspection (‘Emotionally Scarred’) and straight-up bangers (‘Woah’). One minute, he’s indulging in excess (“Tired of this car, then switch it… Tired of my ho, new bitch me” – ‘Consistent’), the next he’s not allowing himself to forget where he’s come from (from the tightly wound ‘Gang Signs’: “Make sure everybody eat ’cause that’s the way that I was brought up”). Baby’s not afraid to be a bit light-hearted, either, as his recent advert cameo for US condom brand Magnum did much to prove.
Although he’s a little more subtle than Thugger, Lil Baby occupies a similarly curious position in the rap world. Generally he stands apart as a relatively direct and no-frills figure in a scene where, increasingly you need an angle to survive, be it through back-and-forth beefs (Machine Gun Kelly), rainbow-coloured hair (Tekashi 6ix9ine) or endless memeability (Drake).
Lil Baby is firmly gimmick-less, someone who has also seemed somewhat reluctant to embrace his rocketing status, which in turn often disguises the true extent of his mega-stardom. As he recently told The New York Times: “People don’t think I’m as big as I am because I don’t really talk about it. Most people are acting like more than what they are; I’m acting like less than what I am.”
This might be down to Baby’s apparent hesitancy towards fame. Recent track ‘Errbody’, released just a fortnight before we speak, sees Baby rap, “All this fame these n****s be chasin’ / I swear I don’t care ’bout it”, and it’s true he has never seemed particularly focused on celebrity. “[I get] like maximum attention now,” he says today, adding: “To me it’s not about the fame game – it’s more about real life. I’ve not been famous that long, so I’m not too wrapped up in the fame game.
“It was definitely amazing to hear [praise from Kanye] – it’s not a regular thing a lot of people get”
“I can’t say [fame is] something I want or don’t want because I just believe it goes with what’s going on. If this is what comes with it, I’m with it.” As he says this, Baby picks up one of his two young sons, who enters the shot and proceeds to start playing with the chain hanging around his father’s neck.
Baby would let rather the music do the talking, and says that his strength lies in the fact that he’s real through and through. Asked what people see in his music, he replies: “The authenticity and the fact that you can relate to it. I like to paint a picture for people [but] I ain’t too far-fetched with what I’m saying, that’s the main thing.”
Perhaps Baby’s success boils down to the fact that he’s been embraced by both hip-hop’s new- and old-school. Meek Mill recently said that Baby was “going legend right in front of our eyes”, while Lil Wayne has named Baby as one of the only current artists he listens to. Simply put, Baby seems like someone as likely to link up with Lil Wayne and Juicy J as he is Lil Yachty and KSI.
Not that he seems too concerned with praise, though. “I ain’t going to say I don’t care because I do care, but it doesn’t really rock my world to hear that kind of stuff,” he tells NME. “I try not to let some stuff get to my head so I don’t get a big head and fall off track. I take it in but, kind of don’t take it in…”
Last July, though, came a peer review that Lil Baby couldn’t ignore. In a tweet, later deleted, Kanye West described Baby as his “favourite rapper”. Yet the high compliment also came with a complaint: West went on to claim that his new fave artist “won’t do a song [with] me”. Baby tweeted back: “Nobody told me ye was trying to get me on a song that’s fucced up.”
Things appeared to have been resolved, however, when later that month Baby was pictured in Wyoming visiting the ranch-turned-HQ that West has mostly called home for the past couple of years. “[After the tweets] I tried to reach out to him,” Baby explains. “I got his number to give each other a direct line then he sent me on a jet to Wyoming – and the rest is history.”
He adds that it was “definitely amazing to hear” West’s praise and points out: “It’s not a regular thing that a lot of people get. A lot of people never get that opportunity or would die for that opportunity. And the fact that I wasn’t even pressing for that opportunity and I got it – I think I respected [that] more.”
“Talking only gets so far – it has to be a matter of action”
Baby confirms that the pair worked on music and says “he had some songs that I started to lead on”, but is keeping schtum on what’s happening overall with the collaboration. “I didn’t actually see [West] work on music too much,” he says, “But I saw him working more in a different form – working on his clothing line and his shoes. That’s even more inspiring than the music.”
The Atlantan, too, is focused on his work outside of music, particularly in terms of activism and using his mouthpiece for good. He joined Black Lives Matter protesters in his hometown over summer and has worked with the city’s mayor Keisha Bottoms on plans for police reform. Further afield, he’s thrown his support behind the End SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) demonstrations, calling for an end to police brutality, in Nigeria.
‘The Bigger Picture’, which appeared on the deluxe version of ‘My Turn’, released in May, was released amid the Black Lives Matter protests and became the most prominent song to capture the moment amid a new wave of protest music. Its video depicted the star attending the BLM protests in Atlanta, wearing a mask that read “No Justice, No Peace” and raising his fist defiantly in the air.
“I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead, but still tell you to freeze / Fucked up, I seen what I seen,” Baby rapped on the track, which galvanised so many and put into words what was so widely being felt. ‘The Bigger Picture’ drew its strength from both a wide-angled look at the situation (“It’s bigger than black and white / It’s a problem with the whole way of life / It can’t change overnight / But we gotta start somewhere”) and more personal missives: “I see blue lights, I get scared and start runnin’ / That shit be crazy, they ‘posed to protect us”. Rather than being a protest song stuffed with slogans and metaphors, this one came straight from the heart.
Today, Baby explains that ‘The Bigger Picture’ resonated so deeply because listeners could tell that “that’s so much of a place where I come from… it was easier for me [to address] than a lot of people”.
He intends to donate $1.5million of the money he made from ‘The Bigger Picture’ to good causes and says he’s already in the process of figuring out where the money is going to go: “I’m going to donate to a couple of different organisations… I’ve actually got a coat drive tomorrow – I’m giving out like 10,000 coats. I want to do different things, but I’m gonna do what I think is the smartest thing to do. I don’t want to do just anything.”
“[Biden’s Presidency] could be a start – you never know. I hope it is.”
Days before we speak, Baby helped to throw a birthday party for Gianna Floyd, George Floyd’s seven-year-old daughter. “I’ve actually become kind of close with some of his family members,” the rapper explains. “They told me her birthday was coming up and I had the money from ‘The Bigger Picture’ so I told them I would take care of all the expenses [for the party] and that they should just go all out with it.” The party took place at Atlanta’s Pink Hotel and Baby attended with his children.
“This is more of where I am in life,” he explains. “I’ve got a voice now and I’m not too good at tweeting or making statements.” (Indeed, he closes his Instagram account a few days after our interview.) “Anybody can talk about it, but talking only gets so far. It’s going to have to be a matter of action before you see a result.”
Unlike Kanye, though, there’ll be no Presidential run from Lil Baby any time soon. He’s stressed that the world of mainstream politics isn’t one for him, and becomes a little prickly when our conversation turns more overtly political – especially when we ask about the fact that he recently told the Los Angeles Times: “A President Biden don’t make much of a difference where I come from”.
Today he says with a sigh: “Questions like these every time I turn around. There’s so many different outlooks and not a wrong or right answer on these type of things. It’s kind of turned me into something that I’m not trying to be.”
Baby does, however, reveal his cautious optimism for Joe Biden’s incoming US administration. Although he notes that, “There’s a whole lot of things that I don’t think changes throughout a Presidency,” he adds after a pause: “I mean, it could be a start. [Biden] could have a chance at eight years… It could be a start – you never know. I hope [it is].”
Although it was the most successful year of his career, Baby’s 2020 – like that of so many others – was marred by tragedy. In July, his friend, collaborator and Quality Control labelmate Marlo passed away after a Highway shooting. Then, on the day of the rapper’s funeral, Baby learned that he’d lost another friend to COVID-19.
Speaking generally about the horrors of 2020, he explains: “It was hard for me to rap during this time period because you don’t know what to rap about. There were a lot of people struggling, a lot of people dying… You don’t want to come out and just talk about anything.”
He found it difficult to adapt during lockdown, too. “I’m just not the kind of person who just sits in the house – I can’t remember the last time I was just sat in the house every day,” says Baby, who spends the entirety of our conversation speaking into his phone while constantly multitasking. “Every day I always have something to do, I keep on going. But I was like, ‘Man, I’m in the house and I can’t go nowhere’. It was a whole life adjustment for me.”
Yet he seems intent on remaining optimistic: “I’m one of those people that take the good with the bad, and obviously my good is outweighing my bad… I can’t complain.”
Despite this sanguine outlook, Baby has described feeling “robbed” that his breakout moment came at a time when he couldn’t truly live it to the fullest, and bluntly sums up this next-level feeling of FOMO: “I know for a fact that I missed out on a whole lot of money.” (Indeed, he recently claimed he earns a whopping $400,000 per concert).
With “a couple of features coming” before things gear up to the follow-up to ‘My Turn’, NME asks Lil Baby how he hopes the next 12 months pans out. “Everything back to normal,” he says, “back to touring, back to doing what I want to do – and how I want to do it.”
Lil Baby’s ‘My Turn (Deluxe)’ is out now
Styling by Jason Rembert and Lil Baby himself