Sun-Ui Yum slaps the floor when he gets back on d.
It’s very clear what Lil Baby is, even before you know who he is: he’s the New Atlanta. It’s a revolving title always accompanied by familiar accoutrements —the Quality Control chain, the Rap Caviar placement, the Drake feature — but this time, it’s been handed down by way of royal lineage. Coaxed into rap by Coach K himself after two years in prison, he’s already become the new face of one of Atlanta’s most venerated institutions, Quality Control. We’re just a year and four projects removed from his first mixtape, but as early as last July’s anthemic “My Dawg,” his eventual destination was easy to map. Today, it feels preordained, the rare arduous climb to stardom that progresses more like a staircase: a major label debut, a remarkably broad press run, and a top ten Billboard Hot 100 single (the Drake-assisted “Yes Indeed”) with presumably more to come.
In some ways, Lil Baby is a practical demonstration of a theory: a physical materialization of what happens when you feed a future rapper Young Thug instead of Young Jeezy—a new New Atlanta built off of the old New Atlanta. It doesn’t feel long ago that it was Migos riding into the mainstream off the coattails of a Drake feature, but in reality it’s been nearly five years, just enough for a then-nineteen-year-old to observe, absorb, and reinterpret; this time, we’re taking Teslas to Mars, not Porsches.
Since April’s Perfect Timing, the ascent has been sudden, rapid, and refined. Dumping several mixtapes in a year is a borderline antiquated creative approach, a chaotic affair that has been shunted to the side in favor of carefully sprinkled singles and minimal album art (think, Post Malone’s SoundCloud after “White Iverson”?). Even at its best, like Future’s 2015, you can’t get rid of the chaos, it’s just spun into a creative objective.
But while the experience of listening through that Monster-Beast Mode-56 Nights-DS2 run was schizophrenic, Lil Baby’s career to date has been remarkably tightly wound and focused. It feels fitting that his “debut album” is a continuation of a series (last year’s Harder Than Hard and Too Hard); it’s his entry to Billboard charts, but it’s also a promise that the mindset and the music is the same. For Baby, that consistency seems a foregone conclusion.
Harder Than Ever, with a few exceptions, is exactly what the conclusion to a musical trilogy like this one should be: the same, just better. Just like his other projects, it’s just under an hour and primarily helmed by frequent collaborator Quay Global, but this time he’s also joined by Lil Uzi Vert, Starlito, Tay Keith, and London on da Track. It’s celebratory, but celebration harmonized with reflection and wry swagger that spills over into vindictiveness. “Exotic” should be played in clubs all summer, and “Leaked” should be played in the Ubers back home. “Life Goes On” is the best car-windows-rolled-down song of the year—an important title. It is textbook, but a very well-written textbook.
There’s a sense of fluidity and abstraction to how his songs are structured that is a reflection of his creative instinct, sure, but also his preternatural comfortability. His biggest hit, “Freestyle,” might get transcribed as one long verse on Genius, but it’d be inaccurate to say it lacks structure—it winds up, unrolls, takes a break, chooses vowels, piles onto vowels. Lines start as small asides—almost just breathers—explored for the length of a bar before he snaps back (“I’m selling coke for real/I’m putting the ‘D’ in ‘dope’ for real” on “Southside”). When all the cylinders are spinning, he’s operating at a microscopic level, finding smaller and smaller units within which to construct rhythms and repetitions.
This is all new. He’s always clearly had the ability to locate an interesting note or melody but not the ability, or willingness, to do anything other than pound it repeatedly (Harder than Hard’s “My Drip”). Most of the early Lil Baby songs are sketches, three minutes that reveal themselves to just be a strong thirty seconds, six times over. But here, even the songs intended to be sketches (“Intro” and “Spazz” don’t clear two minutes) thrive off an internal call-and-response, a rhythm that is unmistakably a structure. That inability to elevate a song above its verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook structure is a wall that most rappers in his subgenre never learn to stop running into.
It is vaguely surprising to learn that Lil Baby began rapping just six years ago, because it would be surprising to hear that about any talented rapper, but you also get the sense that this is the only way you might yield a rapper so fully-formed. Spending several years internalizing how Young Thug and Migos construct lines and verses has given Lil Baby instant poise; he’s not beholden to the phrasings and structures and cadences that, in Atlanta, quickly become binding.
He’s also instantly one of his city’s most engaging lyricists. The sharpness is everywhere, and if it’s any measure, entire songs could be built around throwaway couplets. When his long-teased collaboration with Drake, “Yes Indeed,” was premiered on OVO Sound and filtered through the web before its official release, fans fixated on a particularly slick line (“Cartier glasses, I won’t even peek at you/Yellow Ferrari like Pikachu”) as a title.
Accordingly, however, it does feel difficult to talk about Lil Baby without talking about the fact that, for entire songs he’ll settle into Young Thug karaoke, constructing verses from the (vast) repertoire of Thug flows released and leaked over the years. One of the best Thug tics has been the bait-and-switch on the second rhyme; that’s all over Baby’s discography. It’s not exactly laziness, and it’s improved from twelve months ago, but it still surfaces.
On his collaborations with Gunna, another notable disciple, the music is strongest when Gunna drifts and Baby paces the song back down to earth (“Sold Out Dates”). In those cases, Baby is interesting primarily because he’s a one-note rapper, but if Thug ever did anything well, it was being amorphous and free, letting his lyrics and his voice float off in themes and directions and octaves that other rappers would never. At Baby’s worst, he feels like a mechanical reconstruction of Thug, sanitized of his insanity. On “Cash,” he never does more with Quay Global’s beat that floats on the outer rim of the galaxy than turn down the elasticity on old Thug flows.
The rapidity with which Young Thug fans have seized upon Lil Baby and Gunna as Thug successors, and what that implies about their understanding of Thug’s uniqueness, is more than a little odd. More importantly, though, it neglects what Baby lost in translation. For Thug, most presciently, Lil Uzi Vert, and Playboi Carti, the recent solution to monotony has been to helium their voices nearly out of audible and mortal range. When Thug and Uzi appear on Harder Than Ever, that’s exactly what they do: AutoTune shimmering. It’s likely not the correct solution for Lil Baby, always grounded, but flatness isn’t an acceptable product.
In some ways, the Lil Baby Experience can’t be detached from its forebearers and his predecessors; the void he filled in his label might not even exist had the Migos not been catapulted into Katy Perry world. A prodigy of Coach K and Pee, he’s an artist that is intimately attached to the previous reigning parties of Atlanta like no other twenty-three-year-old could possibly be, and one of the most off-putting side-effects of Lil Baby’s rise has been mentally re-sorting Young Thug from the “next up” box to “maybe gone.”
But as inviting as it is to repeatedly project Thug onto Lil Baby’s silhouette, that’s also a misidentification of the Lil Baby Experience: In all likelihood, it’s less about imitation and more about reinterpretation. He does a lot of what Thug does and a lot of what Offset does, but he already plays “mellow” better than either ever did, and he sounds as good over Tay Keith as he does over Southside. Before he starts rapping on the album’s final song, he mutters, “Never let these n****s catch up once you caught up—know what I’m saying?” It is the most fitting mantra imaginable.