Harold Bingo is in the rental truck, sticked up like Walker Texas Ranger.
In his autobiography, Gucci Mane shared a couple of telling passages about celebrity encounters. He spoke of the horror that he felt when Scott Storch introduced him as “the guy with the murder charge.” While Rick Ross expressed a perverse admiration, telling Gucci that he’d rap about it constantly if he had the ability to do so.
Setting aside Rick Ross’ sudden, puzzling aversion to lying, these are the circumstances under which DaBaby has been introduced to a number of listeners. For every early fan or recent convert who is blissfully unaware, another click comes from someone who wants to know if he’s the guy from the Wal-Mart shooting. A recent viral clip appeared to show him throwing punches during his own live performance (he was holding the microphone at the time), and has only served to reinforce these perceptions.
DaBaby’s rise may seem somewhat sudden but in reality, he’s been building to this moment for roughly four years. He began rapping in late 2014 and kicked off 2015 with the release of his first tape, Non Fiction. It didn’t take long for his music to travel beyond his native Charlotte and some may remember his bold decision to perform at 2015’s South by Southwest while clad in a diaper.
His name was still Baby Jesus at this point in time but during 2016, he rebranded and returned as DaBaby. God’s Work Resurrected showcased an artist clearly adept at fitting in with current trends but still searching for a more distinctive sound. 2017 followup Billion Dollar Baby trafficked in the same auto-tune rap milieu.
By late 2017, DaBaby realized that he needed to go back to the more raucous, rap-driven style that had gotten him on the national radar in the first place. If God’s Work showed an artist who knew how to fit in, the aptly titled Back on My Baby Jesus Shit is when DaBaby began to truly stand out. See the eye-catching videos for “Gorilla Glue,” “Pull Up Music,” “No Hook,” “Flip Phone” and “Above the Rim.”
But it was last summer and fall’s 1-2 punch of Baby Talk 5 and Blank Blank where DaBaby firmly established himself as one of the moment’s premier unsigned artists. Blank Blank’s title track and “Up The Street” were two of my personal favorites from 2018 and “Today” even inspired a Lil Baby remix.
His vocal tone falls somewhere between Ca$h Out and Trouble. Stylistically, he’s semi-comparable to a Busta Rhymes or Ludacris, as far as his willingness to participate in outlandish music videos without losing his joy for writing clever lyrics. This comparison is a bit too pat, though, as DaBaby clearly shares a similar place in the current landscape with artists like Sada Baby and Valee. Sada’s sense of humor may be a bit more coarse (“I don’t rape bitches, never had to, cause I’m fine as hell!”) and Valee’s more on the sly side (“OG gas so loud, it sounded like we getting yelled at”), but all three elicit laughter while simultaneously impressing you with their rapping ability. They’re funny, but the humor isn’t the point of the music — it’s an added bonus.
Introducing DaBaby as “the guy with the murder charge” sells him short. He can vacillate between the gleefully tasteless (“I don’t gotta rape bitches, they rape me!”) and the dryly sarcastic (“Thought it was 10 pounds but I really put 9 on it. And half of them bitches was fake weed! When they open ’em up, they gon’ hate me”) within the same verse. He loves acting out the sex jokes in his lyrics during his videos but can shift to the darkly comedic quickly (“he might as well pick out a shirt/like check this out, listen to me/that’s where your picture gon’ be”).
He’s the audio equivalent of the Goodfellas scene where Joe Pesci takes his fellow goons to dine at his mother’s house after they’ve disposed of the body. It’s the Pulp Fiction scene where Samuel L Jackson is chewing out John Travolta for accidentally shooting someone in their backseat. He’s the class clown who doesn’t appear to be paying attention but the language center of his brain is firing on a higher level than everyone else’s.
Now that Gucci exists in a space where his voice can be beamed into every home in America on an hourly basis (thanks to an Apple commercial), it’s easier to see a way forward for artists like DaBaby. While there will always be authenticity fetishists who are going to attempt to corrupt the conversation and grumpy reactionaries who will pin his popularity on the former crowd, DaBaby is funny, original, talented and willing to stand apart. Attributing his fandom to people being overly impressed by an artist who “lives out their raps” says more about you than them.