Hip-Hop

Lil Baby Has Become a Superstar. Here’s How It Happened, In 10 Steps

Kenneth Cappello

Lil Baby

If you’ve been paying attention to the Billboard charts at all this year, you know that Lil Baby has been a constant presence on them.

My Turn, the latest album from the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper born Dominique Jones, was just named the most popular album in the U.S. for the first half of 2020, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s 2020 midyear charts; the full-length has spent five nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 albums chart since its late February release, including the past four chart weeks. Seven songs on the album have accumulated at least 100 million on-demand streams this year, while the MC has guided five songs into the top 20 of the Hot 100 chart so far in 2020, and recently reached his highest peak to date with his protest anthem, “The Bigger Picture.”

Lil Baby’s ascent has been so rapid -- after all, his debut release was just over three years ago -- that his 2020 numbers can appear mind-boggling to those who haven’t been paying close attention to the rapper’s respective rise. Yet by using a uniquely compressed path, Baby has become an undeniable superstar. Here’s how it happened, in 10 steps.

1. He arrived at the right moment.

The ascent of Lil Baby coincides with the rise of melodic rap coming out of Atlanta -- before he was scoring consistent top 10 hits, artists like Young Thug, Quavo, Future and Lil Yachty had notched crossover hits with warbled hooks between their (sometimes also warbled) verses. By the time that Lil Baby was released from prison in 2017, after serving a two-year stint for probation violation, popular music had shifted from where it was two years earlier: hip-hop had become the leading genre of the streaming era, and songs like Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” had topped the Hot 100 chart.

When Baby released his first mixtape in April 2017, his mellifluous, high-pitched flow sounded both unique enough to stand out in a crowded scene -- which helped ink a deal with Migos home Quality Control Music -- and stylistically in line with his contemporaries. Some of them, like Young Thug and Lil Yachty, even showed up as guests on the debut project. The title of that mixtape, by the way? Perfect Timing.

2. He received a huge early co-sign.

Although Lil Baby cracked the lower reaches of the Hot 100 on his own a few times in 2017 and early 2018, “Yes Indeed,” featuring Drake, was in many ways his commercial coming-out party. Released in May 2018, the single arrived at the beginning of The Unofficial Summer of Drake, with the superstar’s singles “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings” all becoming No. 1 smashes.

In addition to guesting on BlocBoy JB’s “Look Alive,” Drake hopped on “Yes Indeed,” and dominated the song’s first 40 seconds -- before ceding the floor to Lil Baby and effectively introducing him to millions of unfamiliar listeners. The song was the right stamp of approval at the right time, and became both Lil Baby’s first top 10 Hot 100 hit and the anchor of his debut album, 2018’s Harder Than Ever, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

3. He released a collaborative masterclass.

Drip Harder, the mixtape from Lil Baby and fellow rising Atlanta rapper Gunna, received positive reviews upon its release in October 2018, a few months after “Yes Indeed” helped establish Baby as a star. In hindsight, however, the critical response should have been even more celebratory: Drip Harder is front-to-back sensational trap music, with a pair of ravenous artists trading rhymes over top-notch production and becoming stars over the course of 38 minutes. The set's breakout single “Drip Too Hard” became another top 10 hit for Lil Baby, while Drake and Young Thug guested elsewhere on the track list.

Gunna has spent the past year-and-a-half becoming a brand name himself, recently notching his first career No. 1 album with Wunna, while he and Baby have continued to feed off of each other with guest spots on each others’ respective projects.

4. He stayed quiet last year, then teed up a defining project.

Outside of a few stray tracks and guest spots, Lil Baby’s studio output remained limited in 2019, especially considering how prolific the rapper had been during the prior two years. Instead of risking overexposure, he decided to hunker down on his second full-length and save his strongest material for what would ultimately become My Turn, releasing “Woah” as the lead single before the end of last year and “Sum 2 Prove” in early January.

“This was such a big project that came out -- this was supposed to be [Lil Baby’s] year to go up another level in his career,” Quality Control CEO Pierre “Pee” Thomas told Billboard in May of My Turn. The album presented Baby’s vision in technicolor over the course of 20 songs -- more well-rounded than Harder Than Ever, more personally revealing than Drip Harder -- and scored one of the biggest album debuts of the year upon its February release, with 197,000 equivalent album units, according Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

5. He showed emotional depth.

Some of Lil Baby’s early hits, from “Yes Indeed” to “Drip Too Hard,” found the Atlanta native flaunting his newfound lifestyle and shutting down naysayers with ease; his braggadocio is effortless and a core part of his appeal. Yet “Emotionally Scarred,” which became a top 40 hit following the release of My Turn, demonstrated the storytelling capabilities that Baby had not foregrounded too often.

A breakup song marked by a lilting pan flute, the track is riddled with personal wounds, and balances anecdotes (“I can't show nobody where my mama live, that's how I 'posed to feel,” he admits of his newfound fame) with open-hearted apologies (“I know I wasn’t there for you, at least I said I’m sorry / You know what it was, I told you that I was heartless”). “Emotionally Scarred” is arguably the lynchpin of My Turn, because it amplified the complexities of an artist trying to transition from hip-hop star to household name.

6. He super-served fans with an instant deluxe edition.

Two months after the release of My Turn, Lil Baby gifted his supporters six new songs on May 1 and packaged them with the rest of the full-length as an instant deluxe edition -- an increasingly common move in mainstream hip-hop, and one which Baby’s team deemed a necessary pivot once the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his tour plans for 2020.

Not only did the deluxe edition boost streaming totals for My Turn, which returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in mid-June and has stayed atop the chart since, but the expanded release also included one of his biggest new hits. “We Paid,” featuring 42 Dugg, enters the top 10 on this week’s Hot 100, balancing Baby’s more serious-minded singles with some unapologetic flexing and mind-boggling money-spending alongside a dynamic new artist. Speaking of which...

7. He recognized the right protégé.

The My Turn deluxe track list includes hip-hop titans like Lil Wayne and Future; rap stars whose come-ups roughly coincided with Lil Baby’s, like Lil Uzi Vert and Gunna; and two tracks with 42 Dugg, a Detroit MC with a chirpy voice and a knack for hooks. Dugg has spent the past six months molding himself into a compelling new presence in hip-hop -- his Young & Turnt 2 mixtape is among 2020’s best -- and he did not miss his mark when given the opportunity to guest on one of the year’s biggest releases.

As Drip Harder demonstrated, Lil Baby works extremely well when bouncing his bars off another gifted lyricist. Credit to Baby for giving 42 Dugg the chance to develop that chemistry with him as partner and mentor -- first on the standard edition’s “Grace” and then on the minimalist knockout “We Paid.”

8. He saturated the market with guest spots.

In addition to the success of My Turn, Lil Baby has been omnipresent as a featured artist so far this year, hopping on tracks by Lil Wayne, Future, Gunna, Lil Durk, Moneybagg Yo, Lil Mosey, RMR, 6LACK and the late Pop Smoke, among many others. The relentless output has kept Baby an inescapable presence on hip-hop radio and streaming playlists -- and may have backfired as a too-heavy onslaught had he not taken much of 2019 off, as previously mentioned. As it stands, Lil Baby has accrued six Hot 100 hits as a guest this year, buttressing the momentum of My Turn with a savvy collection of assists.

9. He released the biggest modern protest song.

Following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, a slew of protest anthems were released, across genres and demographics, some deeply intimate and others focused on the general Black Lives Matter movement. Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” managed to be both universal and personally revealing, beginning with a heartbreaking news report, gliding into a meditation on police violence and Baby’s own prison experience, then expanding in the chorus to encompass the struggle to uproot deep-seated racism (“It’s bigger than black and white/ It’s a problem with the whole way of life/ It can’t change overnight, but we gotta start somewhere").

Finding a path forward through its empathy, “The Bigger Picture” has turned into a defining song in this new wave of protest music -- debuting at No. 3 on the Hot 100 to become the highest-charting hit of Lil Baby’s career.

10. He grew as an artist.

“F--k it, I’m going on the front line.” That’s how Lil Baby begins the second verse of “The Bigger Picture,” the declaration nodding to the ongoing protests for racial justice in the United States. Over the course of his relatively short career, Lil Baby has been unflinching in his artistic choices, even when they didn’t seem obvious to everyone else; as a result, he has gone from a promising Atlanta upstart to an artist setting the tone for hip-hop acts seeking to expand their thematic focuses.

He can now rap about his flashy lifestyle, the need for social reform and his relationship regrets with equal assertiveness. He can rap alongside massive names, but also pluck out the next big name in hip-hop. Lil Baby has reached an enviable commercial level because he now resides at a much different artistic level than he did even a year ago, and can now point that artistry in a number of different directions. Now that he’s a superstar, it will be fascinating to see where that growth takes him next.