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On 'It's Only Me,' stardom makes Lil Baby more anonymous than ever

Baby mistakes visibility for greatness, an outlook that lends itself to routine.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
Baby mistakes visibility for greatness, an outlook that lends itself to routine.

Lil Baby's transformation from a street cat who took rappers' money in dice games into a superstar making rapper money has been breathless, and his music leans into the velocity of his rise. He constantly notes the speed of his unlikely journey from Atlanta's impoverished West End to prison to music stardom, exalting the rewards of constant labor and forward motion. The titles of his early releases, which established his workhorse rep, invoke muscle building as much as toughness: Harder Than Hard, Too Hard, Harder Than Ever. In his tumbling verses, you can almost feel the exertion.

Lil Baby has always lagged behind his mentor Young Thug and his tag-team partner Gunna, who both taught him to rap, but his rapid ascent and his resolve to improve suggested a dormant potential manifesting in real time. On It's Only Me, his knees lock. The album is intended as a bigger and ballsier blockbuster sequel to 2020's platinum-selling My Turn, which was the most streamed album of 2020 and cemented him as a star. But it feels more like a business obligation than a refinement or mission statement. The album artwork depicting Lil Baby as the sole person on a rap Mt. Rushmore inadvertently captures the spirit of this drab and listless music. Baby, like his labelmates Migos, who have invoked the same imagery, mistakes visibility for greatness, an outlook that lends itself to routine. Accordingly, he just shows up and toils, motor learning guiding his writing and performances.

He spends the album noting the ways fame has altered his means and his focus. "I moved on from slanging drugs and pistols, can't be thinking simple," he says on opener "Real Spill," a brooding track that features a prominent Sade sample. That means eating dinner with Kris Jenner and Corey Gamble. "Switching up my image, no more pictures with my styrofoam," he announces on "From Now On." He reports from the World Cup on "Back and Forth," the Golden State on "California Breeze" and from "somewhere in Toronto with a Canadian" on "Waterfall Flow," underscoring his distance from West End corners and traps. He's clearly in a more deliberative and reflective mode, and has said he began writing with pen and pad on this album to deepen his craft. But there is no tension, texture or scenery in these songs. He offers no point of view about his new environments, moving through them briskly and without curiosity.

Lil Baby variously calls himself a legend, a hero and a boss, but the songs never embrace that mythmaking or mold those labels into personas. Baby is a straight shooter who does not joke, embellish, or emote, an asceticism that does him no favors as he attempts to detail his new life. His past music got around those tendencies through sheer force of will, his melodic flows hurtling through beats the way a cannonball breeches a castle wall. Without that momentum, he is rudderless; his weak storytelling, basic lyricism and nondescript style are on full display. Although he shakes off the lethargy for a few songs ("Not Finished," "Danger," "Never Hating"), he often sounds disinterested in the act of rapping, as if his stature confirms his pedigree.

His distaste for eccentricity extends to his production choices, which he sources from trap mainstays like Murda Beatz and Tay Keith, along with beatmakers of smaller profiles like Harto and Eza. The 808s reliably kick, the snares sufficiently strike and the keys consistently patter, but on the whole the mood is static and grayscale. No surprises or quirks lurk within. The beats are entirely functional, bleeding into each other as the 23-song album drags on. "Stand On It" and "Back and Forth" seem to nod to the bouncy and syncopated rhythms of the Michigan rap scene, which has recently made in-roads into Atlanta, but Baby never teases out such a connection in the ways he approaches those songs.

Given the way Baby perks up when he raps over faster production, he'd likely sound great on a Jersey club or drill track. But he doesn't even probe the kookier margins of trap found in plugg or the eclectic work of producers like Brandon Finessin, Pi'erre Bourne and Coupe. "Not Finished" yields his strongest performance, but when looked at closely, it is more intense than self-possessed. Although the boisterous KRAZYMOB beat knocks, it coaxes Baby into familiar habits.

The generic beats underscore a deeper anonymity in Lil Baby's music. He prizes his directness and authenticity, and has long pitched himself as the counterpoint to rap "weirdos." The label is confusing given his tutelage by walking iconoclast Young Thug, but he has stuck to it nonetheless. "Don't compare me to no other rapper, I feel like my shit real," he boasts on "Russian Roulette." "I made real niggas win, we back in style now," he declares on "Real Spill," doubling down. But without a distinct point of view, what is realness? Young Nudy, 21 Savage and GloRilla are also no-frills rhymers, but their orthodoxy doesn't preclude their tastes and perspectives. Their dashes of humor and self-awareness enhance their realism, yoking it to their interests and origins. Lil Baby has an almost mythical reputation as a gambler, but you'd never know it from his songs. He raps as if he's being surveilled, a habit that ironically yields one of the album's few inspired moments: On the third verse of the otherwise boilerplate Future collab "From Now On," Baby drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and spurns the feds he insists are listening in. He sounds electric.

The paranoia is justified, too. A carceral horror story has played out in Atlanta rap this year. In May, authorities rounded up multiple members and affiliates of Young Thug's YSL records, including Thug and Gunna, on RICO charges. The 88-page indictment, filed in Fulton County, characterizes YSL as a criminal street gang and uses social media posts, song lyrics and tattoos to accuse the group of a criminal conspiracy spanning armed robbery, murder, attempted murder and drug distribution. Young Thug and Gunna have denied the charges through their lawyers, and the music industry has spurned the case as a violation of First Amendment rights, but the precedent the indictment sets is already being felt. "We're used to saying a lot of stuff that's not true, that didn't happen. It's art," Lil Baby told The Associated Press. "It's your imagination. You can go as far as you want to take it. But now, I have to be very mindful."

In this context, Lil Baby's fixation on new horizons and self-improvement can scan as caution. "All the youngins that be drillin' shit, you know that come with life," he obliquely raps on "Everything." Later, on the pensive "No Fly Zone," he's defiant: "Until all my hitters get out the system, they goin' in every song." Even in this light, however, his lack of style undermines his new mission. His omissions lack the cold clarity of Vince Staples and Pusha T, the anguish of Lil Durk and Polo G, and the provocation of Tee Grizzley and the late Drakeo the Ruler — all of whom have used their nightmarish brushes with the justice system to turbocharge their music with emotion or denude it into cutting commentary. A monument can acknowledge a legacy, but it can't build one.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Kearse
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