Rappers and stand-up comedians have a lot in common. For one thing, a gift of gab is a strong requirement for success in either profession (obviously). For another, a lot more writing goes on behind the scenes than you might think. They both require precision of diction and timing to elicit the desired response from their audience. There’s a lot of call-and-response with that audience, as well as riffing or freestyling; improvisation is key when a heckler can disrupt a show, let alone a fight or a shootout. Sometimes props are involved. It would seem that a lot of rappers could be comics and a lot of comics could be rappers, but there are enough differences between the two that it’s not a one-to-one comparison.
While both professions are at their most effective mining trauma for content, their respective takes on that trauma tend to be wildly different, at least on a mainstream, macro level. Comics have to find the absurdity in sadness; something that sounds miserable on paper can be absolute comedy gold with the right twist in perspective and a deft enough delivery. Sometimes that involves being as absurd as humanly possible in your delivery, leaning into just how weird life can be.
Rappers, for the most part, have to do the opposite. They toughen up the exterior, projecting an aura of calm menace. They don’t invite ridicule — often they bristle at it. Rappers can be funny, but unlike their comic counterparts they generally hate being the butt of the joke. Eliciting a laugh is rarely their end goal. However, a new addition to the canon, 27-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina rapper DaBaby, is bridging the gap between the two professions with a lively sense of humor that belies serious talent hiding just below the surface.
There have been plenty of rappers who incorporated humor into rhymes, dating all the way back to some of the earliest examples like Biz Markie and The Fresh Prince. Even early gangsta rappers like NWA’s Eazy-E could be funny by virtue of the sheer outlandishness of some of their boasts. Since then, characters like Redman, Eminem, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and more recently, Big Sean and 2 Chainz have used off-kilter punchlines to emphasize their lyrical skill and set themselves apart from their competition.
However, in more recent years, fewer and fewer rappers have seemed like they’re in on the joke. Migos member Offset groused just a few weeks ago that his high-flying Atlanta trio had bridled at a 2018 Saturday Night Live sketch that parodied their unique chemistry. Rappers like Redman and Ludacris have become less prominent, while Eminem lashes out any insinuation his punchlines have lost their once potent punch after audiences moved on from enjoying shock-jock style he’s employed for most of his career — although he did take comedian Chris D’Elia’s spirited impression of his wordy cadence in stride.
DaBaby though, is altogether different from many of the forebears that have fallen by the wayside. Although it’s clear from his snappy, pitter-patter flow that he’s a well-practiced rhyme delivery machine, he leans into the zaniness in a way that few of his peers have matched. It’s a deliberate choice, too. A year ago, he went by Baby Jesus and his efforts from the era followed a familiar formula. In the video for “Above The Rim,” he straightforwardly boasts of his sexual prowess with a standard syncopated flow and lounges in a hotel bed with a gun-toting paramour, oozing with charisma but projecting a rather boring persona.
Then, on New Year’s Day, sporting his current moniker, he dropped a different kind of video for “Walker Texas Ranger,” showcasing a more hyperactive flow and animated persona. The video is jam-packed with eye-popping imagery reflecting the over-the-top, cheekily boastful punchlines they accompanied (“I left from the jail, had like 136 missed calls,” he brags). He wildly acts out his rhymes, choreographs a goofily parodic fight scene, and stages a green-screened truck crash, all while mugging at the camera like a late-90s Busta Rhymes. Follow-ups include the Adult Swim-esque late night stoner humor of “Mini Van” featuring BlocboyJB and the silliness of watching him play the worst postman of all time in “Suge (Yea Yea).”
The spazzy humor in his music is also derived from his flow’s motor-mouthed delivery of off-the-wall boasts like “You disrespect me and I’ll beat your ass up all in front of your potnas and children” from “Suge.” Later in the song, he revisits the motif: “Beat and burnt me a n—- in front of the store where your mammy and grandmama shop at.” This is where he shares more in common with stand-up comics; the story derives from a real-life incident in which DaBaby actually shot an attacker at a local Walmart. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, he said that someone pulled a gun on him while he was shopping with his children and their mother. Police never charged him with a crime.
The thread of humor, morbid or otherwise, streaking through his music on his major label debut for Interscope records, Baby On Baby, which released this past weekend among a crowded collection of quality albums, differentiating his effort from some of the more contemplative and conventional fare on tap. His willingness to be the butt of the joke, either in his absurdist videos or in his rhyme-a-second raps, fixes his place in the lineage of rappers who’ve adopted humor to uplift, brag, insult, and sort out their issues.
He’s not the only one, to be sure. In the past year, other rappers like Blueface and Doja Cat have achieved viral notoriety by embracing lighthearted, jokey subject matter and visuals, but DaBaby’s ascension feels like the moment things have really switched. Hip-hop has spent so much of the last decade being by turns deep, woke, mopey, emo, angry, serious, dark, and introspective, it’s about time it got to be the one thing that helped it become the number one genre in the country. DaBaby is the signal that it’s finally okay to be funny again and he’s laughing all the way the bank.
Baby On Baby is out now via Interscope Records. Get it here.