Nothing To Play With: Lil Baby Interviewed

From the Archive: CLASH Issue 123.

Dominique Armani Jones, or Lil Baby as he’s known by the masses, isn’t the type of artist who relies on a public persona to summon followers. Neither is he concerned with the expectations that fall upon those in the spotlight, or the urgency for mainstream recognition. One can’t help but wonder whether our interview will take place; Lil Baby is currently one of the biggest rappers in the world today, and the Atlanta trailblazer has cultivated an enigmatic if distant persona.  

His divisive third studio album ‘It’s Only Me’, released in October 2022, set out to solidify his standing as a rap renegade. His crossover appeal secured him the top spot on the Billboard Album charts – the album earned just under 300 million official streams in the US, the third-highest figure for one-week streams for an album that year. By default, the bar was always going to be high, with predecessor ‘My Turn’ crowned the most-consumed album of 2020. Commercial viability doesn’t seem to phase the rapper, however. His unwavering belief in his output is apparent in the bar from his song, ‘Top priority’: “They runnin’ to me, I’m from poverty, what’s a Grammy to me?” 

In conversation, Lil Baby shifts between bravado and humility, retelling a journey of success from humble beginnings and of beating the odds with no favours. His intentions are clear. “The only thing I care about is people enjoying my music, I try to leave it at that. If it’s outside of that, I really don’t care to feed into it,” he says.  

A Georgia native, Jones was raised alongside two sisters by a single mother. Toughened by his upbringing, the rapper reflects on his formative years and the parallels between his own start and that of neglected areas in the UK: “At first I used to think overseas was different but since I’ve been to London, I’ve been somewhere like what we call the hood or maybe the lower class areas – it’s kind of the same thing.”

For someone who didn’t foresee a career in music, Lil Baby is very much steeped in the tradition as one of this generation’s most paraphrased and quoted rappers online. I ask him about the “reluctant rapper” label that’s followed him. “I always say I wasn’t into rap but that’s not all the way true because I’m a fan of music,” he pauses for a second, “I would go on YouTube, a song would come up, I’d keep playing the song until I knew all the words, like every day. I kind of switched the words into my life, I’ll say what I want it to say but it wasn’t like an “I’m gonna be a rapper” thing. I just used it to get me through my days.” 

As Lil Baby reached the 10th grade, he moved away from academia to a life of petty crime and quick thrills. Up till this point, the prospect of becoming a rapper was a peripheral dream, despite the likes of Young Thug and Coach K breaking through on the scene. Sentenced to two years in prison, the street gambler hit a dead-end in 2015, whilst his city was galvanised as an incubator for nascent talent with the rise of label, Quality Control. Bearing witness to this shift made little difference for Jones, at least to start off with. Re-visiting his former mentality, the rapper shares: “You never honestly know what someone has going on from the outside. So of course it was amazing to me, but I never looked at it like that’s my inspiration”. Yet, by the time he’d return to a life outside of confinement, there had been a slight turn in the rapper’s demeanour. “Coach K always told me to rap. I tried it when I first came home, literally the first day, but I didn’t think it would work. Then I tried again, maybe like seven or eight months later. I haven’t stopped since…”

The continuum of Atlanta’s music scene since the 80s is one of the most prized stories in the great American rap tradition. The likes of Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy, Future and Migos map out a lineage of contemporary sounds; the proliferation of trap comes to mind as does the innovation of OutKast and Kilo Ali that came before. Each origin story was met with doubt and uncertainty before it was adopted en masse by the generation that followed. When asked about his relationship with local kingpin Young Thug, a rampant force in the current sound, Lil Baby pays his respect. “I was sitting in the studio with him for hours, not to watch him rap or anything like that, but that’s just how it went. Even Gunna, before I was rapping, I just watched them rap. I was with them anyway, I’ll just go up there to chill, I just love music so I’ll be there”. 

2017 captured a transition period for modern hip-hop, lodged between algorithms in a streaming era and major label intervention. Yet, with the backdrop of history behind him, Lil Baby placed all his bets on a visceral and drawled aesthetic. When asked whether the state of the scene was difficult to grapple with, Lil Baby’s answer is plain and simple: “Definitely.” Still, he launched his assault with four mixtapes, all released within the same year. On 2018’s debut album ‘Harder Than Ever’, Lil Baby secured a Drake feature with drop-top banger ‘Yes Indeed,’ which has amassed over a billion Spotify streams to this day. A collaborative album ‘Drip Harder’ with fellow Southern rapper Gunna would shortly follow, ruthless in its attempt to re-define the core elements of rap – more grit in its storytelling, less gimmicks. Yet, it was the project’s lead single ‘Drip Too Hard’ that proved to be the ultimate turning point: a Diamond-certified success story. Reflecting on the pair’s explosive rise, he reckons, “We just had that down south swag that people was missing.”

Amidst the highs and lows – the commercial success, addiction troubles, and a growing family – the rapper is reflective of each and every lesson his trajectory has served him thus far. “I had to change everything over the course of time,” he assures. “A lot of things that I learned in the streets, I never forget, and I always keep with me no matter what I do, where I go. As times changed, that turned into just learning the hard way.” Indeed, it’s a sustained work ethic that has remained integral to Lil Baby’s winning formula. “My older peers instilled in me that if you don’t hustle you don’t eat type of vibe. I come from a ‘no days off’ type of environment,” he explains. 

An adrenaline-fuelled come-up has classically led to a make or break crossroad, one that Lil Baby first started to push past on his second album and now seals off with, ‘It’s Only Me’. The rapper is finally taking his time and space to flourish, and the project sees him ride a nonchalant pace, comfortable in his ambitions as not only an artist but a man approaching his thirties. “I feel like I started to actually become an adult. Even after ‘My Turn’, I was in a state of just maturing. The bigger I get and the more in tune people get, I try to use my words wisely. Be smart out here, save money, do the right things and know what you’re doing when you’re doing it.”

A performance of the protest song ‘The Bigger Picture’ at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards in 2021, served as a poignant and poetic commentary on police brutality. Amplifying both the voice of the personal and those of the Black Lives Matter movement – it’s a moment that elevated the artist beyond superficial tropes. “In order for me to speak on something, I have to know about it. When I say something it’s gonna be loud, but I don’t want to be loud and wrong,” Lil Baby says with conviction. 

Satisfying public expectation has not and never will be Lil Baby’s thing. Down to his unabashed use of auto-tune across melodies to laying down verses straight off the dome, the rapper doesn’t take a step that feels disingenuous or incongruous to who he is. The song ‘Heyy’ in particular, crystallises Baby’s stylistic flair, where tumbling flows slip in between pockets buried within the trap production; the likes of ‘Forever’ tap into an R&B influence, revealing emotional resonance in between the hedonism and the high life. 

Amongst a hefty list of collaborators, the likes of Future, Lil Uzi Vert or Offset would be expected choices but Lil Baby’s personal favourite would catch most of his die-hard fans off-guard. “I would say that collaborations like Ed Sheeran or Kirk Franklin; any collaboration that’s outside of my rap culture, anything that’s unexpected,” he explains.

Some may quake at the thought of one more rapper becoming engulfed by mainstream success, others will recognise that it’s time for the rapper to step outside of his comfort zone. “My approach may not have changed, but my way of thinking has changed”. In doing so, the rapper has reaped the benefits with his credentials, stepping away from this year’s GRAMMY Awards with Best Melodic Rap Performance.

“Even though I feel the way I feel about awards, I’m definitely very appreciative,” he confesses. “I don’t take nothing for granted, I try to take advantage of everything”. It’s this same energy that now lands the star with win-big opportunities, securing the official FIFA World Cup anthem on ‘The World Is Yours To Take’. Yet, the rapper is all the more conscious of his current success, humble enough to admit he’s not yet at his creative peak. “I’m doing great but I’m still on a learning level, I don’t got it all the way yet,” he says candidly. 

Keen to forge ahead following the release of ‘It’s Only Me,’ there’s a sense that Lil Baby is on the verge of a reboot. Earning the loyalty of his fans now grants him the freedom to experiment in the future, and steer hip-hop into its next chapter. He’s made it perfectly clear from the start: “Baby ain’t nothin’ to play with…”

As seen in CLASH Issue 123. Purchase your copy here.

Words: Ana Lamond
Photography: Kenneth Cappello
Styling: Jason Rembert

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