Brandon Callender will leave the Twitter complains to y’all.
42 Dugg doesn’t like talking about himself. The 25-year-old rapper shrugs off biographical questions, deflecting them with asides and jokes. It’s hard to tell if he even likes doing interviews. When Dugg and I hop on a phone call in late April it feels like our conversation is barrelling toward a dead end.
“Do you feel like Detroit can be the next big rap city?” I ask.
“Hell yeah,” Dugg replies instantly.
It’s one of the first moments in our conversation where there’s clear emotion in his voice.
In the last two years, Dugg’s made it clear he wants to be the person who bridges the gap between the Detroit rap scene and national audiences. By signing to Lil Baby’s 4PF and Yo Gotti’s CMG in a joint deal, he made a move mirroring none of his peers. Signing to these labels has given him the chance to make sure his music reaches audiences he couldn’t if he kept focusing on working in Detroit.
When Dugg first started popping in the city, his first interviews and music videos weren’t on WorldStar or blogs that claim to ‘shape the culture.’ They were on homegrown channels like The Stewe Show and TheHipHopLab, Detroit-centric channels where artists from the city the ability to directly tap in with people from the city with raw and personable interviews.
Other Detroit focused YouTube channels like TF Circle Entertainment and 4sho Magazine provide artists with space to upload videos to a few centralized channels. The parochial nature of these channels make it easy for their intended audiences to find new music, but difficult for new listeners to find.
Dugg said he “knew [he] couldn’t make it without his city.” If he wanted the full-fledged support of people in Detroit, he needed to find ways to show them love back by releasing content on the city’s biggest rap channels.
Dugg’s music doesn’t try to match the eccentricity of someone like Sada Baby or the absurd lyricism of Rio Da Yung Og. Instead, he’s part of a lineage of rappers in the same vein as the Peezy, Payroll Giovanni and the late Blade Icewood, penning grounded memorials to friends who’ve passed away and detailed stories about past hustles. Dugg’s been able to skirt these comparisons to others because of his half-rapped, half-sung delivery. He carved his own spot out in the city’s rap ecosystem by combining his grief-stricken songwriting with Detroit’s staple funky, synthesizer-heavy beats.
At the top of 2018, he released “Mama I’m Sorry,” which he called a failure in his eyes since it’s not as big as he believes it should be. “Mama I’m Sorry” is an open letter to his mother, apologizing for having his jail sentence extended by two years after getting paroled. Dugg said that even though he believes people will appreciate that song more later. That self-proclaimed failure made him shift focus to figure out what was working for him instead of what wasn’t.
He bounced back from that failure later in November, releasing “The Streets” with Babyface Ray, one of his biggest songs-to-date. Woven in-between lines about Fendi hoodies and hustling, Dugg raps, “You was there when I started, dawg, you not when I finished / I told you I got you and I meant it.”
When he writes about pain, it’s done with the brutal honesty and bluntness of a confession. It feels like he’s freestyling thoughts about these emotions, but it’s clear that the lyrics he writes are the product of sitting down and grappling with feelings of loss and dread. Dugg said writing about these experiences has helped him process his emotions in healthier ways. He enjoys writing music expressing those emotions because its “better than smacking somebody.”
Though they don’t play together anymore, Dugg met Lil Baby in 2018 as gambling partners. (Dugg admitted Baby “got him good” one time in a Billboard interview) This was unknowingly the start of their future partnership. In 2019, Baby and Gotti got into a bidding war over him before signing to both in a joint deal.
Dugg’s willingness to collaborate with artists from outside the city lets him be heard by people who don’t search for Detroit music. The strongholds Gotti and Lil Baby have in Memphis and Atlanta, respectively, both played roles in his ascent. He’s been directly exposed to their fanbases with features and tour appearances. Singles like 2019’s “Bounce Back,” which featured Gotti, were major label collaborations he didn’t have access to before. He fondly remembers receiving his CMG chain from Gotti on tour, saying that it “felt good” to finally get it because Gotti “welcomed him” to the industry.
Fast forward to 2020 and Dugg landed his first Billboard hit as a feature on “Grace,” a stand-out from Lil Baby’s latest album, My Turn. Dugg opens “Grace” with an airtight verse and closes the song out with another just as cutthroat. He serves as a foil to Lil Baby’s breakneck flow, slowing down the song and with his sobering voice. “Damn near went deaf when they told me they killed you,” he raps.
“They played the beat and I was just talking shit,” Dugg said. “When I went in there, I just said anything. There was a lot of people there, so I was like, ‘Shit, let me just go try it out.’ After I went in, Baby went in there and he spit some shit and was like, ‘You got to say something else.’ I said some shit in there but they ended up taking it off. So he was like, “Dugg you got to say something hard and finish that motherfucker.”
The song unlocks a side of Dugg which hasn’t been seen before. His collaborations with Lil Baby have challenged him in ways others don’t. His verses on “Grace” are weighed down with a gravity other songs in his catalog have tried to imitate but don’t come close to.
He briskly jumps from emotion to emotion in his verses. There’s pain, (“New dawn no roof I can still see the sky / Peace to my grandma, I can still see my guys), desperation (“Luke get up, doggy, I need you / Only nigga made sure I was eating”) and anger (“Nigga, fuck a house, I done damn lost a building”) laced beneath his words.
Then there’s the whistle. Dugg’s whistles are like the final moments before a cowboy showdown in a Spaghetti Western. All is calm and the only thing you can hear is the wind rustling in the background. You know something’s about to pop off, but you aren’t sure what’s going to happen. But for Dugg, it’s become a signature preceding some of his best verses.
“I don’t even know why I did that shit, I ain’t even gonna lie,” Dugg said about the whistle. “Originally, I was just trying to catch a beat. I was just trying to see how long I had to come in.”
Dugg’s latest release, Young & Turnt Vol. 2, which came out in March, followed his eye-catching feature on Lil Baby’s album. It feels like a step in the right direction for the rising rapper. There are songs which fit the pain-channeling blueprint he’s had laid out since 2017 already like “Hard Times,” clear cut commercial singles like “Not a Rapper” featuring Lil Baby and Yo Gotti, and experimentation on the moody, autotune-soaked “Ride With Me.”
For decades, Detroit has made attempts at becoming a major city in rap, but these aspirations have never been fully realized for a variety of reasons, but now, it feels like the city is here to stay. Dugg branching out might be the start of a new era for Detroit rap, helping take the city’s droning piano loops and high-pitched synthesizers on a world tour.