Lil Baby - XXL Digital Cover

Words: Georgette Cline Images: Leland Hayward for XXL

DedicatedLil Baby’s rap moniker pales in comparison to the growth he’s experienced over the last five years. With his newly released third studio album prospering in streams, the Atlanta rapper’s music, business and outlook are steady elevating.

There’s a war going on outside no rapper is safe from. One that requires 24-hour security and bulletproof vehicles. Even nestled in a mansion in the winding hills of Los Angeles, where affluence and uppercrust permeate the air, precautions are necessary to keep one of the game’s most celebrated artists of the new generation safe. While the city and other regions have been beset by several rappers who’ve died by gun violence in tragic attacks over the last few years, Lil Baby has always had protections in place. The homegrown Atlanta rapper has been resting his head in a Westside California architectural masterpiece for the last five weeks across September and October to finish recording his highly anticipated third studio album, It’s Only Me, which arrived Oct. 14. A steel gate and lush canyon surround the rented property. A security guard stands at attention outside as he checks names and IDs for everyone before they set foot inside. Baby is aware of what’s going on in the world around him despite being focused on the release of his album.

“I'm livin', ya know what I'm sayin’?” says the 27-year-old hip-hop luminary as he sits on a Paris green couch inside the lavish estate on an early October day. He’s dripped out in a Jagne denim top and red leather pants, Supreme Air Force 1s, yellow Richard Mille watch and Wafi-crafted diamond chains. “I'm a target, ya feel me? No matter where I go, I'm a target. So, I'm livin' like I'm a target.” Whether it's in Atlanta or L.A., the bulletproof fleet has been the newest addition for his welfare though. “I could afford it so why not? Be safe, ya feel me?” With the overwhelming success he’s amassed from a rap career in the last five years, it’s certainly a sign of foresight as much as it is growth.

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Sitting up in the hills 20 miles away from the Hollywood sign isn’t something the Grammy-winning artist saw for himself right away as a kid growing up on Atlanta’s West End. Big dreams to be a real-life millionaire were, though. Since the radius of the block was the only thing familiar to him back then, and he was all the way in the streets hustling as a teen, getting there was going to mean serious work. It’s always been “money over everything” for Lil Baby, born Dominique Armani Jones. Although he had a penchant for math and language arts in school—his smarts allowed him to skip a grade and his mom describes him as a “genius, basically” in those days—Baby’s primary concern was getting to the bag.

The former trapreneur was respected in the hood for earning his own cash, but longtime friend Young Thug would actually pay Baby a hefty sum to stay off the block before a life of rhymes was a thought. Unfortunately, hustling caught up with Baby when he was 20. He was arrested for selling drugs and did two years in prison during a time he calls “misery.” Upon his release in 2016, he finally took the advice of Quality Control Music cofounders Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas, who had tirelessly urged Baby to start rapping, a talent they thought would come naturally to a young gun who had authentically lived what so many others were capping about in their raps. Lil Baby the rapper was born.

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“He’s one of those artists that can cover all bases of life,” affirms P, who along with partner Coach K signed Lil Baby to QC in 2016. “Drake is in his own lane. Kendrick is in his own lane. J. Cole. All those artists are in their own lane, but it’s certain things Baby can do. Baby can come up to they level, but it’s certain things Baby can do that those certain artists can’t do, ’cause it won’t feel authentic to what they do. He can cover all bases. He talk about females. He can cover street shit. He can take you in the trap.”

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“He can take you on the block ’cause he actually lived that and experienced those moments,” P continues. “He can take you into poverty and struggle. He can talk about politics. He can talk about, you know, the girls, love and heartbreak, and he give you all the different elements and emotions. And he’ll talk about different topics. It’s authentic coming from him, ya feel what I’m sayin’?”

That real spill is heard throughout every project Lil Baby has released since 2017. His debut mixtape, Perfect Timing, showed promise with the paper route ode “Option.” “My Dawg,” from Harder Than Hard, and the Marlo and PnB Rock-assisted “Whatchu Gon Do,” off 2 The Hard Way, proved his hitmaking potential. Within two years, he had dropped seven projects, including his first album, Harder Than Ever, and a bevy of hits including the diamond-selling anthem “Drip Too Hard” with Gunna, “Close Friends,” “Yes Indeed” featuring Drake and “Pure Cocaine.” Hard-hitting collabs like The Boy’s “Wants and Needs” and DJ Khaled’s “Every Chance I Get” with Lil Durk put him in respected territory. His depth was also felt when he dropped “The Bigger Picture,” an intrepid track detailing the protests and police killings of Black men like George Floyd in 2020. Not only was he serving the streets with a soundtrack, he provided some life guidance for anyone else willing to take note.

For someone who was reluctant to rap in the first place, consistency became Lil Baby’s greatest weapon to fire off his lyrical progression. Ten projects in five years. However, critics have complained that the rhymer tends to use the same flow across songs. Different melodies and the pockets he hits combined with the copious anthems he’s delivered over bracing beats prove he can switch things up. He’s also aware of the chatter about his delivery. “You gotta really pay attention, I’m not mumblin’,” Baby raps on his new track “Heyy.”

By the time his sophomore album, My Turn, landed in 2020, he was no longer ascending to rap star status. It was evident he was the big dawg high in the sky. The No. 1-selling Billboard 200 chart-topper, now quadruple-platinum, became that year’s most popular album across all genres and the most streamed. The street-savvy neighborhood hero with the airily adenoidal voice beat Taylor Swift’s Folklore and the late Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon for the honor.

Now, with his latest 23-track magnum opus, It’s Only Me, it seems only natural he’d have felt some pressure to meet expectations when making the new album after the colossal success of My Turn. So, did he? “Yes, and then no,” Baby admits. “Yes, because I'ma always want to outdo myself. I'm the only person where I’m like I’m trying to outdo, ya feel me? And then no, because I never actually try to outdo myself. I just know to do what I suppose to do and it just like always happens for me that way, feel me? I’ll outdo myself with no problem.”

Lil Baby certainly has out the gates. On release day last Friday, the LP earned 70 million U.S. streams in comparison to the 55 milli for My Turn. He was the No. 1 most-streamed artist on Spotify that same day and locked in seven tracks from It’s Only Me in the top 20 on the platform. By Saturday morning, the entire top 23 songs on Apple Music were also owned by him. He’s projected to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 next week on the strength of massive streams. If he stays on pace to meet the 210,000 first-week sales forecast, he’ll hold the third biggest debut by a rapper this year after Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers with 295,500 and Future’s I Never Liked You at 222,000. He could even beat Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind numbers of 204,000.

“I don’t wanna act like a superstar, but it’s certain times I have to think like a superstar because you have to think as you are.”

From streams to projections, fans are clearly eager to hear what Baby has to say. It’s Only Me includes more elevated discourse. He’s leveled up, but still keeps his sights on the home team. “I went from the projects to Zürich, shoebox to Swiss accounts/Millionaire meetings, collared shirt, I left my cup in the car/I'ma bring the ghetto to the light, can't leave ’em stuck in the dark,” he raps on the key-driven “Top Priority,” produced by DJ Champ and prodbyjuko. Future, Young Thug, Nardo Wick, Pooh Shiesty, EST Gee, Fridayy and Rylo Rodriguez are guest features while ATL Jacob, Cubeatz, KaiGoinKrazy, Hoops and Harto, among others, cook up the beats on the project. “California Breeze,” with its knocking, guitar-licked production courtesy of Murda Beatz and Mars, finds him opting to share what he knows with one special lady. “But, if I can have a second of yo’ time, try to elevate yo’ mind,” he rhymes.

There’s some maturation in substance and sound from his prior solo effort and last year’s Lil Durk joint project, The Voice of the Heroes. Sharing newly acquired knowledge learned amid the flex. Mattazik Muzik, one of Lil Baby’s engineers since Harder Than Hard in 2017, echoes those sentiments. He began working with the rhymer on what would ultimately become It’s Only Me shortly after the My Turn deluxe dropped in 2020. “The substance of the content that he's giving to you overall,” says Mattazik, who also produced the album cut “Stand On It.” “It doesn't matter if it was just something going on in his life or something that was going on in another person's life, he was able to actually take that material that he had and convert it to where he been giving people lessons, and have them learn the situation. It's giving guidance and knowledge. And on top of that, too, it gets to a point where you could tell the stuff that he learned from others, and he'll be able to teach us in his way.”

Mr. Jones is also doing that outside the booth. This past summer, Lil Baby tweeted that he wanted to start an investment group for young Black millionaires. He’s currently in the process of making the vision a reality. Baby wants people that come from the same community he does to know how powerful they can be. He believes it starts with no longer blowing money fast and paying taxes. “It's important for me to do [this VC], personally, because I feel like once you reach a certain level, you're never supposed to go back to another level,” Baby conveys. “Your family not never supposed to go back, like none of that, ya feel me? That’s how I feel. Then I feel it's as important for us as like Black people because that's gon’ keep us living, ya feel me? This generation, the next generation, next generation. It'll be like generational wealth. That’s gon’ keep us empowered, ya know what I’m sayin’? The more shit go down, the more we just die out.” That’s not happening on his watch.

While he’s had prodigal habits that refuse to die hard (“My accountant say I need to slow it down with these Dior garments,” he serves on “Russian Roulette”), Baby’s got a new addiction: business ventures. No more excessive chains, watches, cars or homes. In addition to being the founder of his own label, 4 Pockets Full Inc., which includes artists 42 Dugg, Rylo Rodriguez, Lil Kee, Chalynn Monee and Noodah05, Baby is serious about expanding his financial portfolio tenfold.

“I started wanting to figure out how I can keep getting money forever,” he relays. “So now, I don't buy nothing, but I just invest my money. If I get an opportunity, I'm trying anything, ya feel me? It sound like a bright idea, I'm trying it. So, I got money in something of everything, literally. Talking about small stuff to big brands like Mitchell & Ness to something small like a startup in this little natural herb business. Like a lady, for instance, she sells juice cleansers or something, ya feel me? Or to Hero Bread, it's like a no-carb bread. I could keep going up. I got a lot of ventures, though, that's what I'm into.” Being able to understand business matters like this is what Baby looks forward to passing on to his sons Jason, 7, and Loyal, 3.

Waterfall flows of money are clearly what keeps Lil Baby motivated. Listening to artists like Jeezy, T.I. and Yo Gotti as a kid likely attributed to that as well. As Atlanta’s biggest new success story to come from the city in recent years, he’s already envisioning his place in the hip-hop history books. “I see myself in the history of Atlanta hip-hop as one of the greatest to ever do it," he proclaims. “When I say do it, that don't mean like necessarily most-selling albums or the longest-running or it don’t mean numbers or nothing. I mean to take my situation, turn my situation into generational wealth.”

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According to Billboard’s U.S. Money Makers list of top-paid musicians published last year, he brought home $11.7 million in 2020 as a top-streaming act. The riches he’s amassed come from music, of course, but also new brand deals like creating the FIFA World Cup 2022 song “The World Is Yours to Take,” a spin on Tears for Fears’ 1985 classic “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” in partnership with Budweiser. He’ll perform the track in Qatar in December. Baby also stars in a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II commercial, which debuted in October. Then there’s his Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby documentary about his life that sold to Amazon this year. “We paid” is an understatement.

“The position that I'm in now and the level in my career, I consider myself a rap star for sure,” Baby states, but clarifies that he doesn’t say “rap star.” It’s superstar in his world. “I think the qualities of a superstar is like a strong fan base. A sustainable amount of time ’cause you could be hot like a one-hit-wonder hot, like superstar hot. It could go quick. So, a different time bracket. I would say your appearance, the way you carry yourself to the way you perform. The type of things you perform at or the type of places you will perform at and the money that you get.”

He’s humble enough to admit there’s at least one area for himself that requires improvement. “I feel like I need to work more on my appearance,” he says. “I don't want to act like a superstar, but there’s certain times I have to think like a superstar because you have to think as you are.” At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, the esteemed entertainer didn’t get this far by thinking small.

Despite all Baby’s accomplishments, happenings in his personal life indicate not everything is golden. His “brudda” Young Thug, who saw something bigger in Baby back in the latter’s days of hustling, has been incarcerated on RICO charges since May. They came up together at Booker T. Washington high school in Atlanta. Years later, countless collaborations, including “Never Hating” on Baby’s new LP, expensive gifts for each other’s birthdays and a camaraderie in shared stomping grounds have united them. Thugger’s absence has taken a toll on Baby.

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“He's not like one of my rap friends,” Baby shares. “He's one of my personal friends. We actually talk on the phone. Or if we in the same city, like one of them guys that I pull up on. So, him being incarcerated, it be different for me. He ain’t like one of the rappers where I don’t see in years or I don’t talk to for real anyway. I really talk to him from a day to day. Me and Gunna we like neighbors. So, for them to be in a situation and I don't really talk to them like that, it kinda mess with me a little bit for sure.”

When Baby does get to speak to Thug, who's in the Cobb County Jail, he gives Thug sound advice. “Read,” Baby reveals. “That's the advice. Like logical, I know you in there, while you're in there, read. Get some books. Figure out what you wanna learn about ’cause while you in there and shit, just figure out some shit, ya feel me? Then when you get out you got a whole new avenue and just apply it to your life when you get out.”

RICO rumors also surrounded Lil Baby for a short time this past summer. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said during a press conference in July that there would be two more high-profile RICO cases in Atlanta within the next 60 days. However, she did not say rappers were involved in the investigation, but the internet came to its own conclusions by throwing Baby’s name in the mix. He has not been named nor charged in any RICO case. A fan on Twitter wrote to the rapper that same month: “Man you better be [looking] out for that rico everybody keep talking about.” To which Baby replied, “Only god can judge me.” He addresses the fan’s inquiry. “I don't even be seeing that type of stuff,” Baby maintains. “The internet, they come up with everything and anything.” The rap ace only answers to one person: God. “Basically, that means I don't care what nobody thinks about me, ya feel me? What are you talking about? Like literally, only God can judge me. It's right, it's wrong. This, that. I really don't care how you feel.”

This blunt demeanor coincides with how Baby views the world around him. He sees no competition against him, even though he knows other people look at him as a rival. “I’m in a race of my own,” he declares. While his team keeps him in the loop of what’s being said out there, he insists he can tell how someone feels about him before a word is ever discussed. Baby’s got a keen instinct on how to read people. Be it a look or a handshake, he immediately knows what type of time someone’s on, an innate ability that comes from life in the streets. No disrespect nor switching up is tolerated. Baby’s not even entertaining the thought, but those people usually just fall back anyway, he says. There are more important things for him to focus on like big business.

With 2023 less than three months away, Lil Baby could very well be the fourth quarter finisher. Closing out the year by potentially having the biggest album of 2022’s last 78 days following the project's release is a solid way to start a fresh 365. He already has 19 multiplatinum, 44 platinum and 52 gold certifications to his name, and It’s Only Me is on track to increase those numbers. A feat that seems harder to achieve these days when album sales are dismal. P calls this phase of Baby’s career “developed”—“By listening, by observing, by being humble”—while Mattazik Muzik thinks Baby is “unbeatable”—“Baby is in a lane where ain't nobody in it but him.” How does Baby view himself at this moment? After staying dedicated to a rap career that he was initially apprehensive about, Baby recognizes his own flourishing energy in his reflection. “I could see myself growing,” he says. “Like, Damn, that's how I look in the mirror sometimes. Damn, I'm growing.”

“I'm most proud of myself,” he adds. “I been able to maintain, keep my mental where I need to be at, be able to judge, decipher and stay on the right track.”

Top priority.

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