I'm Gonna Be Me
Going from a trap star to a rap star has changed Lil Baby’s life and no one saw it coming—including him—but yet he still believes it’s his destiny.
Words: Kris Ex
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

“Baby ain’t a trapper; he a rapper.” This admission comes midway through “Baby,” a song by rappers Lil Baby and DaBaby. And—depending upon your familiarity with what’s currently going on in rap and your preferences within the spectrum of music offered—this entire moment of Babies on “Baby” can represent different things.

To a certain set of ears, it’s the moment when two of the biggest breakout stars of the moment team up for two minutes of seriousness and silliness and flow—Lil Baby’s airily nasal, street-level steel stare meeting DaBaby’s hard-muscled, off-kilter menace. To other ears, it’s a ludicrous event that signals more of the same: two young rappers with maybe more fame than awareness, whose names seem like low-hanging fruit fallen to the ground, making observations that are neither new nor transformative. There’s either nothing to see here or everything.

Dominique Armani Jones—known professionally as the artist Lil Baby—has gracefully drifted to sleep so quickly and so hard that it’s almost as if he’s passed out or got hit with a hidden, yet kind, tranquilizer dart. It’s about 4 a.m. in one of the multiple studio control rooms at the Atlanta headquarters of his record label, Quality Control Music. Lil Baby had been discussing his recording process, slightly noting that he doesn’t use a pen and paper and rarely uses a screen or touch pad keyboard.

What he’ll do, he said, is go into the recording booth and freestyle for a few minutes, maybe building around a bar or a punchline or a strong string of ideas that he’s been carrying around in his phone or head. “My recording process is kinda still up in the air,” he shares. “I don’t really have a writing process. I don’t write at all but, honestly, I feel like it’s a modern-day writing because everything is technology and if I go in there and freestyle and I keep it, I feel like I wrote that. If I go in there and fix it, it’s almost like something I wrote. It’s not, like, a one-take, this is what I said and this is what it is.”

This kind of answer is common in Lil Baby’s interviews. He circles back on ideas, sees things from both sides, contradicts himself and comes up with a new middle-ground and he knows he does this. He acknowledged that he switched terms (he was originally asked about his writing process, but jumped to his recording process and then back); he notes that he’s on both sides of the argument (he’s a writer and not a writer). Just a few sentences before he pondered the “interesting question” of what it means to be a rapper and then began giving a lucid answer about platforms and expressions and audiences before stopping and backing away. “Let me give you a better example, so you can get exactly what I’m saying,” he says. And then he thinks wordlessly before admitting, “What’s a rapper to me and other people [is] different.”

The idea of Lil Baby as a rapper is central to his narrative at this point. Not just because it’s brought him international fame and growing riches, but because it’s something that is relatively new for him. He always saw himself with and around money and around rappers—but more of their circles, and not in them. It made sense. He’d seen his childhood friend Young Thug become one of the most eccentric and enigmatic figures on the trap music scene. He knew Gucci Mane through Pierre “P” Thomas, a member of his street crew who also happens to be the co-founder of Quality Control Music, which has become a powerhouse record label in the urban space.

Baby hung out in the studio with acts like Migos and Rich the Kid as they were coming up, but mostly he was in the streets. It was P’s QC partner, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who saw something in Lil Baby and encouraged him to rap. For years, Baby dismissed the idea. He was about money—his goal was to accumulate a million dollars, even though he had no idea what he would do with the money. Rapping wasn’t for him; he barely rapped along to the songs he liked. Sometimes he’d change a word here or there to make a joke or a statement, but mostly he liked the way the music sounded coming out of his cars; the way he used to visualize it back when he was wearing headphones on the bus on his way to school.

There are so many unspoken ways in which Baby doesn’t move like most rappers. But that’s something we’ll have to get to later because now, about five minutes into the interview, he’s fallen asleep. One of the things he had been emphasizing was that he doesn’t “put too much fiction” into the things he raps about, the understood message being that there was a hard-earned veracity to the music he’s been making for the past few years, which is the only music he’s ever made in his life. And then he trailed off into air and his eyes closed.

Rashad doesn’t like his last name being used unless it absolutely has to be. He has no social media profiles and prefers texts and phone calls over anything else. He’s from a small town a few hours south of Atlanta and his older brother, Twin, was somehow involved in the formation of Quality Control by linking Coach K (who had done stints with both Gucci Mane and Jeezy) with P, who had in his possession a wealth of studio equipment and space after divesting himself from his former venture, Dirty Dollar Entertainment. (P refers to Twin as a “partner”). Basically, Rashad has been with QC from day one, learning every aspect of the business that he can. He currently manages Lil Baby, who he had known mostly by reputation before Baby started rapping.

In 2017, he witnessed Baby drop four projects in 11 months, before releasing three more in seven months the following year. Rashad’s watched his artist amass billions of streams, going from small clubs on promotional tours to only being able to book amphitheaters and better. He’s looking forward to the release of Lil Baby’s next project because it’s the first one that’s been incubated and will be treated with a full rollout. Baby’s only had one physical release—2018’s Harder Than Ever—everything else has been digital only, but the impact has been real. Gold, platinum and multi-platinum certifications, top 10 hits, the kinds of songs that even if you’re not into mumble trap, you’ve come across, or rather have had them come across you. People who don’t know what Lil Baby is but listen to the radio or go to clubs will know “Yes Indeed” and “Drip Too Hard” when they hear it.

Ahmed Klink for XXL

It’s difficult to say what makes Lil Baby work. People will have reasons, but nothing that gives a full picture. P says it’s about authenticity; Rashad thinks that it’s the relatability of his journey. As for writers, we’ll pull something out of our asses to try to earn our keep. We’ll say that there’s something about his gaze, the way he speaks solely from the first-person; that he’s the most I-centered rapper in a minute and how his rap flows—melodic but unsure, confident yet searching—speak to a greater feeling of a generation that is being told that there may not be a future for the planet but are determined to enjoy life on their terms regardless.

Baby is telling his story, but he’s doing it in ways that transcend his experience. Moreover, he talks about the emotions behind his drives—sometimes motivational, sometimes chilling, sometimes hilarious. Sometimes he’s just catchy. His first mixtape, Perfect Timing, showed him to be playing in a very specific box, but also having maybe more tools in that box than expected. And, even if that wasn’t necessarily obvious, what happened over the following months showed an artist who was learning in real time. His friend and collaborator Gunna showed him the basics of rapping—how to count bars, where to place hooks, the importance of adlibs, how to save a song to his phone. Young Thug schooled him to the game, but Thugga’s influence is also over Lil Baby’s delivery. As Baby grew as an artist, he experimented with deliveries to the point that he could easily hang with Migos’ Offset on the bouncy “Transporter” on Harder Than Ever.

"You can drive around a community like the West End and you roll down the windows and you can just smell the money coming.” This is what Ryan Gravel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year regarding this Atlanta neighborhood that has seen better days and will, if he has his way, see more to come and very soon. Gravel is the mastermind behind the BeltLine, the 22-mile walking and mass transportation loop that encircles the core of the city’s financial centers and creates a hub of commerce, development and business the likes of which the city has never seen. Just about every major company or attraction of the city can be located within the BeltLine’s perimeter. Gravel and Donray Von now have plans to invest $300 million dollars into developing the Mall West End from the kind of place that hosts Payless ShoeSource and Rainbow Apparel to being home to something else.

The shopping center’s move towards the upscale feels inevitable. Anyone who’s ever witnessed gentrification can tell what’s coming like some people can smell the rain before it gets wet. Gravel and his developers vow to keep the space mixed-use with affordable housing, but what will be gone will be gone. Everything here will be new and yet, none of this is new.

It’s hard to imagine what the mall will look like, and it’s even harder to imagine the scene that takes place over the course of a couple of hours on an August day when Lil Baby decides to go shopping for sneakers that he really doesn’t need. He had met up with a handful of his crew 4PF (Four Pockets Full) at a gas station not too far away. They ate fried food that reeked of hot sauce out of Styrofoam containers resting atop a tinted mid-sized sedan as a trio of young boys on bikes circle around, somewhat oblivious, somewhat hesitant, before finally—out of realization or courage—asking for photos, which Lil Baby obliged.

That pattern continued through the mall—the food being eaten in stores, the circling, the recognition, the photos, all happening with an intimacy and familiarity that can only come from someone who’s spent his whole life around these people. There may be a handful of actual “fans,” but for the most part, the people he comes across are supporters he’s known directly or indirectly, by name or by face, for years.

He purchases his son Jason, 4 (his oldest of two boys, the other 8-month-old Loyal), a pair of denim Nike Air More Uptempo ’96 sneakers to match his own. It feels so good to be able to do something like that on a whim that he takes Jason to the bathroom to change him into his new gear. Baby grew up wanting money. To buy his son sneakers that he can immediately ruin is a small joy. To be in his son’s life is a joy. As for the coming development of the mall, “I’m a part of that, for sure,” he confirms, but he doesn’t give specifics.

LaShon Jones may not have given her son his rap name, but she’s definitely the cause of it. She’s a friendly-natured Southern woman who, like her son, telegraphs as both older and younger than she is. She wasn’t a strict parent, but she was a hard disciplinarian who tried to keep her son out of the streets. Even when he was in her womb, she read to him—fairy tales, nursery rhymes, encyclopedias, whatever. He was smart enough to skip two grades entering school, but she only allowed him to skip one, fearing his emotional development would suffer, especially later on. “I didn’t want a lot of issues that ended up happening anyways,” she admits.

By the time Lil Baby was a teenager, he was hanging out with people much older than him and missing months of school at a time, even though he could pass the tests without trying. “To this day, I don’t understand it,” she says of his ability to master school while not attending. She was concerned with him being in the streets but also concerned about him taking his allergy medicine. If he didn’t answer the phone, she’d go find whatever corner he was holed up in to make sure he was OK, causing his friends to laugh and tease him: “Oh, you just a little baby.”

The name stuck.

Lil Baby is courteous to a fault. He’s in a photo studio in Los Angeles going through outfit changes for the cover of this magazine. He greets with a strong grip and makes the kind of eye contact that’s long enough to be sincere but ends before things get too creepy. When he gets in front of the camera he doesn’t turn on as much as he focuses his awareness. It’s easy to observe and harder to capture. Rashad says that it’s not grooming or training—it’s just who Baby is. His mother calls him an old soul. Coach K refers to it as swag.

When talking to multiple people about Lil Baby, you’re going to get multiple and often contradictory stories. And that’s not to say that anyone is capping. It says maybe something about the human mind and implicit memory as opposed to explicit memory. It says that, as an artist, Lil Baby is a feeling more than a sequence of events. There’s a secrecy to him and everyone around him, but also an openness, and it all translates into how we curate our emotions and our lives. It’s possible we get it because we do the same thing.

We may provide touchstone sentiments but we don’t always give identifying details. Everyone’s an open book and a protected account at the same time. Real recognize real, and there may be nothing realer than securing your secrets while showing your heart, which is what Lil Baby’s music does again and again—it finds this sweet spot between motivation and aspiration, between telling the story of what happened and the truth of what happened. It taps into the way the music industry and the drug game fold in on themselves—washing, rinsing, planting seeds. The way some names are mentioned and others are not. The way Quality Control finds artists—not by algorithm or views or followers, but by knowing: This kid right here has what it takes.

It’s not a knowing that can be readily quantified. If it could be explained as a process, it would be much more readily duplicated. If it were a sum of parts, Lil Baby would likely not be here for a cover shoot because this magazine’s brain trust would have figured out that he belonged as part of the Freshman Class last year. Sometimes mistakes work out for the best.

Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University and the author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, recently wrote in The New York Times that: “In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as ‘the boundary between the White and Negro communities’ on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while White neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place.”

The I-20 runs just north of the Mall West End. On the other side are Spelman and Morehouse colleges, Clark Atlanta University, the billion-dollar Mercedes-Benz Stadium, that kind of stuff. To the south lies much less known Oakland City, a place pockmarked with wild overgrowth and abandoned bungalow homes. Off the neighborhood’s main strip is the Oakland Food Mart. It served as the backdrop for the video to Lil Baby’s establishing hit, “My Dawg,” and offers mainly nicotine, sugar and preservatives for sale. And beer.

Many of the homes here are boarded up. Others you can’t tell if they’re abandoned or just temporarily unoccupied. It’s not hard to look at this neighborhood and feel a tinge of sadness. Even for a city that’s produced as many stars as Atlanta, the biggest name to come out of here before Lil Baby is YC of “Racks on Racks” fame. But Lil Baby is home. At an auto works yard, he and members of 4PF mill around, getting on dirt bikes and four-wheelers that they race up and down the street, popping wheelies or attempting to.

There’s no sense of hierarchy or leadership, yet there are no hangers on or everyone is, including Baby. In most rap crews with an established star, there’s nucleus and a pecking order, but—at least today—4PF has no center. There’s no established security, just a few young Black kids with penitentiary chances in their shorts, and it feels like they’d be carrying those odds whether Baby was here today or not.

Cars slow down and even through the tints, greetings are exchanged, people come by and some stay. People pull up and exchange goods, getting in and out of cars. It all feels so…normal. It feels safe here, as if time has slowed down or just moves too fast everywhere else. There’s a rap star somewhere around here with Instagram-ready stacks of cash, with no small amount of jewelry. But sometimes you forget he’s here, because everyone else seems to. The only real focus is taking turns ripping up and down the street, small glimpses of Black boy joy smiling from underneath dreads and otherwise dead stares.

None of this is new. And that there’s nothing new about Lil Baby’s music is not an indictment of him. Rather, it’s an indictment of society. How many times must these stories be told? How many times must they be ignored? An artist’s only obligation is to be honest to themselves and their craft. They’re not obligated to know the entire history of culture and then create something new. They’re obligated to create beauty or truth, as they see fit.

Ahmed Klink for XXL

It’s best not to think of the culture wars that will erupt here once money starts pouring in to rebuild the mall. You can just smell the money coming. And you wonder how many it will drown in its wake.

"Nah, we gonna knock this out,” says Lil Baby.

This is back in the quiet studio in the almost totally unoccupied QC headquarters. It’s eerily silent, considering the label’s compilation—Quality Control: Control The Streets Volume 2— was released just hours ago. The release seems like an afterthought. There was no direct fanfare, no mentioned anticipation. And it’s not the reason Baby is tired and dozing off. He’s had a long day of entertaining, but the one thing he’s not going to do is flake on his interview, even if it’s about six hours after he said he’d show up. Lil Baby is determined to see this interview through. And he does.

He says he treats his music career with the same sense of drive that he did when he was hustling on the streets—a dusk ’til dawn attitude that made him amass $100,000 before losing it all to the dice, at least twice. He talks about his various addictions and how he’s transferred them into the studio to make a hit, how it still feels like a roll of the dice that can net him a big payday. He talks about knowing P from the streets and how it was a marathon conversation with Marlo (with whom he released 2017’s 2 The Hard Way) that got him to finally get into the studio, not too long after serving two years in prison where he read what he estimates to be 200 books, even if the titles are escaping him in the moment. He talks about signing with Quality Control over going with Young Thug or Gucci Mane, who both wanted him. “I told P, like, ‘Bruh, you got the Migos and whatever else and [Lil] Yachty. Bruh, ain’t no way you got time for me,’” he shares. “P proved me wrong.”

He discusses many other things—he’s sharply insightful when talking about his father’s choices and mindset clear about the importance of being the father he didn’t have. There are the businesses he owns—a soul food restaurant, a lawn service, a towing service. There’s his label 4PF, which shares a name but not personnel with his street family. “When I sign people, they going through 4PF, the label,” he affirms. “4PF, what I claim, is the crew. When I sign new artists, they don’t never have to speak on 4PF—’cause they not 4PF, you get what I’m saying?”

There are things he doesn’t speak on, even when he does. And certain themes get circled to back and again: There’s the expectant stuff like loyalty and grinding, his grounded observations of legacy and opportunity and the fragility of this winning moment. But the most surprising thing may be his constant return to a hand of fate, of God, being behind his good fortunes. He says he went to church every Sunday until the music industry took him out of it. He was into church—not the Bible, he says, though his mother reveals he would inexplicably quote scripture as a young boy. The idea that he’s a God-fearing, church-going human, despite his musical subject matter and life choices, isn’t new. Like so much about him, there’s nothing new when you try to break it down by pieces, which is the problem. People are not pieces; they’re wholes. And why the whole holiness that is Dominique Armani Jones is street rap’s ascendant chosen one at this time? Well, he may have the best answer available.

“I feel like whatever is meant is meant,” he expresses. “I feel like this is already written.”

See Photos From Lil Baby's Fall 2019 XXL Magazine Cover Shoot