Lil Dicky

Lil Dicky On Having Potential To Be 'One Of the Best' and Proving He's No Joke

Lil Dicky has always released music at a glacial place -- one increasingly at odds with today’s flood-the-market model. “I’m not an infinite-good-ideas guy,” says the comedic rapper born Dave Burd, who in the past four years has released only a pair of songs. “I have, like, 10 good ideas every two years. So I want to make them count.”   

But with “Earth,” the shaggy-haired MC took his exacting methods to a new extreme. The star-studded single took more than three years to complete and made headlines for its absurdist animated video that finds nearly every major pop star on the planet voicing a different animal (Justin Bieber as a baboon, Ariana Grande as a zebra, Halsey as a lion cub, Ed Sheeran as a koala). “I’ve never worked on a single song for this long,” says Lil Dicky, who first tapped Benny Blanco to produce before Cashmere Cat signed on as co-producer. “Other songs might have more of a selfish expectation where I want it to succeed because it’s good for my career,” he says. But considering “Earth” sounds the alarm on global warming, “this felt like more was at stake.”   

Turns out it also was good for his career. “Earth” debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became Lil Dicky’s fifth song to top the Comedy Digital Track Sales chart, the most among soloists. But it’s all a bit wild, really, that the polarizing 31-year-old is an environmental messenger, especially when considering that the rapper’s last major moment came more than a year ago via his controversial Chris Brown collaboration “Freaky Friday.” The song peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100, and its video -- in which the pair swaps bodies -- also drew criticism for its lyrics, which, among other things, brushed off Brown’s history of troubling behavior. Lil Dicky is also the guy who on his 2013 breakout hit, “Ex-Boyfriend,” panicked about how his genitals compared with those of his girl’s former flame. But Blanco believes Lil Dicky’s humorous approach to music is exactly why he is the right person to tackle more serious subjects. “You’re listening to the song, and it’s a joke and it’s funny,” says Blanco. “But at the same time, you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m really [thinking about] something important.’?”

Scooter Braun, Lil Dicky’s co-manager, says he learned of the ambitious idea during an early-2016 hot-tub hangout at his house with Lil Dicky and Blanco. “When they tell you they want to make a song for the environment and every single superstar in the world is going to play a different animal, you kind of look at them like they’re insane,” says Braun, who had just started working with his client. “It sounds like something someone says as a joke, but Lil Dicky made it all happen.”   

At the time, Lil Dicky was already in the studio with Blanco, working on what became “Freaky Friday,” when he decided to hash out the earliest concept for “Earth” during those sessions. In the interim, he and Blanco started recruiting the song’s two dozen-plus guest stars, tapping Charlie Puth first and methodically going from there. But it was Braun’s quick thinking that helped them land more guests than ever expected. While at Wango Tango in Los Angeles last June with his client Grande, who was headlining the festival, Braun turned his trailer into a makeshift recording studio where Lil Dicky and Blanco posted up. It was there that everyone from Shawn Mendes to Backstreet Boys dropped in and recorded their parts. Braun says he approached almost every artist billed on the lineup, explaining how he was involved in a new song that would raise awareness about the environment; a portion of its proceeds are being donated to a variety of environmental charities, most notably The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. He would then play them a 30-second clip and hear what they thought. Everyone was in. “Dave’s reputation precedes him,” says Braun. “People are excited to be a part of whatever he does.”    

Born in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, Lil Dicky was raised on 50 Cent and Jay-Z. He studied business at the University of Richmond and graduated with plans of being a comedian. But when he released the now viral video for “Ex-Boyfriend” in April 2013, which raked in more than 1 million views in its first 24 hours, he decided to pivot to music instead -- even after his closest friends and family staged an intervention to persuade him not to be a rapper. “I couldn’t live with ‘What if?’?” says Lil Dicky. The day after the video went viral, Mike Hertz signed on as his co-manager. And once Lil Dicky independently dropped his debut mixtape, So Hard, that May, Hertz helped him ink a distribution deal with Commission Music/BMG.   

Cara Robbins
Lil Dicky photographed on April 29, 2019 at Issue Studio in Los Angeles.

Lil Dicky has released only one full-length album to date: 2015’s Professional Rapper, which featured Snoop Dogg on its title track and had Rich Homie Quan and Fetty Wap swapping verses on “Save Dat Money,” which became Lil Dicky’s first song to enter the Hot 100. But not for lack of trying. “Sometimes I get frustrated that I can’t just go into the studio and come out with an album,” says Lil Dicky, but he’s a firm believer in taking his time rather than rushing anything to completion. “I know each song and idea deserves to be perfectly executed,” no matter how long it takes.

Speaking with unpretentious self-assurance as he drives through Los Angeles on a recent afternoon, Lil Dicky says he has always had a “Kanye-esque” belief in himself. “I willed myself into this career. When I go back and listen to my old music, it’s ridiculous that I even had this level of belief, ’cause it kinda sucks. It’s almost like there must be some level of delusion to me -- but thank goodness, because as you ride that delusion, the more time you put in. Logically, you’re going to continue to improve.”

Now that “Earth” has dropped, Lil Dicky is finishing the final few tracks from his forthcoming second album. “I want every song to be good enough to walk up to Jay-Z and play it and not feel embarrassed,” he says. Outside of music, his original plan for a more traditional comedy career has been revived: He recently landed his own as-yet-untitled comedy on FX for which he’s head writer and star. “I’m always just good enough to maintain this pace,” says Lil Dicky. “Do I feel like I’m one of the best? I feel like I have the potential to be.”

Shooting for the Stars

In early 2016, Scooter Braun signed on as Lil Dicky’s co-manager. Days later, he watched his latest client dream up -- and begin to execute -- his wildest idea yet.

Confidence Is Key

Years ago, when I first met him, he was already one of the most confident people I ever met. He told me he was going to be one of the greatest ever in music and was going to make one of the greatest TV shows of all time. So the confidence has always been there. But he’s also neurotic in how he thinks about every detail.

Championing A Cause

Everything we do at SB Projects has to have a philanthropic element, and I’ve never had an artist say they have an issue with that. I have young children, so I personally find climate change to be an incredibly important issue. The fact that Dicky stepped forward [regarding] this issue was so impressive to me.

No One-Trick Pony

Spend a day on YouTube going through all of Dicky’s videos, and you start to understand who he is as an artist. This is a guy who wrote every single piece of each of his songs and also came up with the creative vision for everything you’re watching. It’s then you start to realize [he is] someone who truly has a certain sort of genius.

Cara Robbins
Lil Dicky photographed on April 29, 2019 at Issue Studio in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.