To achieve longevity, does the North Carolina rapper really need to become a sad guy?

By Sam Hockley-Smith
April 20, 2020 at 12:15 PM EDT
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Last November, North Carolina rapper DaBaby released “BOP on Broadway,” a good song with an all-time great video that features a cast of characters and dancers navigating a bustling street scene. It radiates pure, cartoonish joy. DaBaby first appears about 20 seconds in, before making a run for it when the cops crash a drug deal he’s part of. We don’t see him again for nearly 40 more seconds, but we hear him the whole time. It’s a great example of how DaBaby works as a rapper: when you are listening to a DaBaby song you are always hearing DaBaby. He bulldozes through beats, throwing out punchlines and self-referential details too fast for anyone to reasonably keep up. You get the sense that he just walks into a studio, raps for 30 minutes straight, and then throws some instrumentals under his verses as needed. His albums are perfunctory affairs, collecting whatever he’s been working on in a convenient place, before he moves on to the next thing. It’s this style — paired with a series of hilarious, high-concept videos that take advantage of his 1000-watt charisma and a persona that sits somewhere between smart bully and menacing comedian — that has catapulted him to stardom.

So what to make of Blame It on Baby, his third release in the last 13 months? Its cover — featuring the rapper in a surgical mask, eyes cast downward, standing against a melancholy blue backdrop — paints this as the serious DaBaby album. The one for These Strange Times. But beyond the artwork, Blame It on Baby is no more or less serious than last year’s Kirk, and while most of the songs on it could easily have come from that album, they do help us understand the rapper’s path forward.

For the most part, Blame It on Baby is classic DaBaby. Minimal bass stabs and toybox plinks and whirrs accent joyful s--- talking. Songs generally clock in under three minutes. He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, which is all the album needs to be. But as the industry dictates, doing one thing well enough to get popular is not enough to stay popular, so there are also songs on here that paint him as lovelorn and heartbroken. It’s not a great fit, not because he can’t pull it off lyrically, but because it doesn’t really sound like he even believes himself. On the earworm-y “Find My Way” he even admits his distaste for love songs. It’s notable that it comes right after “Sad Sh–t,” which is literally a love song and, despite its winky title, the least inspired moment on the entire album. 

It’s that dichotomy that calls into question the greater machinations of the music business. Wouldn’t it make sense for him to continue down the path paved by funny, technically brilliant lyricists like Redman and Ludacris? To achieve longevity, does DaBaby really need to become a sad guy? The middle portion of Blame It on Baby seems to say that he does: “Sad Sh*t” might be a dud, but “Find a Way” and the Roddy Rich-assisted “Rockstar” are catchy and brooding, allowing him to rehash harrowing moments of violence, inner turmoil, and PTSD. It’s a welcome dose of introspection from a man who clearly has a lot of insight to offer on the complications of being human, but it feels shoehorned too, like it’s just there because he feels like boasting and joking for 30 straight minutes isn’t allowed. When “Jump” rolls around, it’s a reminder that being cocky and throwing jabs is actually what DaBaby does best. Here, he’s smoking weed solo in skyboxes, trading verses with YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and bragging about his superior hitmaking abilities with a palpable sense of joy. Who are we to deny him his fun?

Similarly, the album’s title track is a virtuosic showcase that finds DaBaby right at home, ramming through a litany of drumless beat switches, emphasizing the natural percussiveness of his voice. He speeds up and slows down to match the production, but otherwise doesn’t deviate from the formula he’s now perfected. The best part is that he doesn’t need to. B-

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