If there is any more solid indicator of surefire rap success than the Drake co-sign, it hasn’t been invented yet. Say what you want about his penchant for wave-riding, the man has an undeniable ear for talent.
The latest recipient of his blessing is Lil Baby — not to be confused with the co-founder of Cash Money Records. A product of Atlanta trap rap label Quality Control Records, he is a part of the second wave of QC’s attempted rap game takeover after the successful early returns of labelmates Lil Yachty and Migos.
His collaboration with Drake, “Yes Indeed,” is already burning up the charts, introducing him to an entirely new faction of fans. The QC touch is apparent in the calculated release of the song, formerly known as “Pikachu,” just days ahead of the launch date of Lil Baby’s latest mixtape, Harder Than Ever.
Harder Than Ever is the third in a series, following 2017’s Harder Than Hard and Too Hard. For the plethora of new fans following the cold glare of Drake’s shared spotlight, it serves as a worthwhile introduction to Lil Baby, his Southside Atlanta ethos and his measured drawl. For everyone else, it’s a decent, but over-long addition to his expanding catalog that relies a little too heavily on its guest stars to allow him to truly shine.
It’s apparent from the mixtape’s “Intro” that Lil Baby both fits in with Quality Control’s collection of trap adherents and stands out as unique at the same time. His flow is less choppy, more uniform than the staccato utterances of Migos’ Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff, and obviously more practiced than Yachty’s. The rhymes tumble out of his mouth one after another like a bubble gun, but evenly, so that his voice becomes almost as hypnotic as the beats he raps over.
The majority of the songs clock in at around three minutes, fitting in with the general trend of rap music lately. The unfortunate side effect of this is a feeling like Lil Baby, who is most decidedly not a so-called “mumble rapper” and clearly has the skills for more, seems disinterested in constructing songs so much as getting out ideas for songs.
Tracks like “Leaked,” “Southside,” and the aforementioned “Yes Indeed” seem unfinished, almost as if Lil Baby decided they were done as soon as he laid his verses and moved on to other endeavors. It lends something like an air of authenticity to his drug tales — after all, who has time for the studio when there’s so much money to be made off the streets?
However, Quality Control’s guiding hand suggests a level of calculation here that undercuts the casual effort their latest artist seems to be putting toward his musical product. If you’re going to drop the Drake cut within the same week as the album, you know there will be more eyes on the project than there ordinarily would be. While Harder Than Ever is front-loaded with some of Lil Baby’s strongest material of his young career from a lyrical standpoint, it feels lacking conceptually. There’s not much variety from song to song, and despite their short runtimes, they still eventually begin to blur together.
The guest verses break things up just enough to give you something to look forward to when in-house QC producer Quay Global’s drums begin to drag, but the impression that Lil Baby himself could have done more to make each song sound more complete is hard to shake completely. Rather than using admittedly solid appearances from Gunna, Moneybagg Yo, Young Thug, Offset, Lil Uzi Vert, and HoodRich Pablo Juan to provide variety, the beats could have done more to differentiate themselves from each other and embraced a more traditional verse-hook structure to avoid the creeping sense of monotony that makes the back half of Harder Than Ever start to feel like a slog.
It’s ironic that the project ends on the defiant “Never Needed No Help,” because without the above-mentioned features, it would end up merely an above average but pat trap rap album from a really good rapper with average beats. Quay Global flashes some potential, but his unchanging loops hold back Lil Baby’s energy, while Lil Baby himself proves he’s got what it takes to make a solid 14-track album, but only if he gives some of that energy to finishing his songs.
Maybe those complaints are moot; Drake’s fans have notoriously devoured practically any collaboration he gifts his platinum vocals too, but it’s the day-ones who’ve boosted acts like Migos into the stratosphere of rap stardom. Lil Baby has plenty of those and the consistency to retain them, so why switch up his style now? It’s gotten him this far. With attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, LB’s winning formula suits him and probably has more than enough traction with his own fans to carry him to his own version of success, long after the trend-chasers have moved on.
Harder Than Ever is out now via Quality Control Music/Motown Records/Capitol Records. Stream/download it here.