The winner of the last five Grammy Awards for Best Rap Song have been, in chronological order, Kendrick Lamar, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake. Things haven’t been much more diverse in the Best Rap Performance category. Kendrick has scooped the prize in four of the last five years — three times as a solo artist and once with Jay Rock, Future, and James Blake on “King’s Dead,” which was joint winner last year, alongside Anderson .Paak’s “Bubblin.” Let’s all shed a tear for Drake, who has been nominated in the category seven times since its inception in 2012 without taking the gilded gramophone back to what must be a cavernous trophy room.
Kendrick and Drake present very different mythologies. Here we have the deep-thinking laureate versus the flashy extrovert; the man whose music fuels Black Lives Matters protests versus the star whose tunes play in the background of drunk dials. But as different as K.Dot and Drizzy might be, an expert con artist couldn’t convincingly argue that the duo’s domination of the Grammy’s rap categories sufficiently represents hip-hop over the past few years.
In this backdrop, honoring DaBaby in 2020 would feel revolutionary. His single “Suge” is nominated for both Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, and if you believe that award shows should value innovation, DaBaby is a man who deserves to leave the Staples Centre on Sunday with gold in his backpack.
The idea of a transformative rap star coming out of Charlotte, North Carolina, once seemed unlikely. Now, it’s undeniable. DaBaby is Jonathan Kirk, a 28-year-old who first musically strutted out of The Hornet’s Nest a half-decade ago. His rise had been pretty stealthy, but having secured a deal with Interscope, the rapper dropped two albums in 2019, Baby On Baby and Kirk, that fully laid out the sense of immediacy that defines his sound. To hit play on one of his tracks is to see that toothy grin on the cover of Baby On Baby right in your face. His methodology is to flood the senses, to go eyeball-to-eyeball with listeners, to grab them by the esophagus for two-and-a-half minutes without once lettering go.
This is music relentless in its propulsive motion. Rather than waiting for the instrumental to settle, DaBaby likes to start spitting the moment the beat drops. Booming drums and repetitive key riffs are the DaBaby way. He locks you into those beats like they’re a Chinese finger trap.
DaBaby plays the ice-cold gangster with avant-garde proclivities. His music is half art installation, half in-joke. A ball of untamable energy, he fires off funny flexes and catchy hooks like a Gatling gun with a hair trigger. A natural weirdo in the vein of Cam’ron, he’s garnered significant pop culture presence while simultaneously being the kind of artist who would have been a rap blog hero had he dropped during the medium’s golden era a decade and a half ago. And unlike Lil Nas X, the rapper more likely to dominate conversation around this year’s Grammys, DaBaby’s envelope-pushing style has no trace of gimmick about it.
Take “Bop,” a song that could spawn a whole rap subgenre. “Sh*t with some bop in it,” is what DaBaby calls for throughout the tightly packed banger. When the bassline thumps through the speakers at the end of each bar, the rapper bounces his words off the beat like Sonic The Hedgehog bouncing off consecutive enemies. And he does it while paying respect to Bobby Smurda (“I’m a hot n****”) and The Notorious B.I.G. (“I’m going back to Cali like Biggie”). Is anyone else brave enough to take this innovative new style and run with it?
Though it would be easy to write off DaBaby as some kind of eccentric, you can pick through the rest of his 2019 output for evidence of his versatility. I’m particularly partial to “Gospel,” from Kirk, a shot of raw spirituality (though it seems ill-suited to most of his work, DaBaby’s old moniker was actually Baby Jesus). Over piano chords straight out of a church pulpit, he mourns the passing of his father, who died the same week as Nipsey Hussle (also nominated for Best Rap Song this year for the also excellent “Racks in The Middle”) before going into the details of a life hard-lived. Chance The Rapper does his thing — “Gospel” is more essential than anything on the disappointing album The Big Day — while Gucci Mane comes through with his instantly recognizable Southern drawl on the final leg to add another layer without ever threatening to steal the show from the track’s leading man.
It’s “Suge,” though, that has been certified platinum and established as DaBaby’s signature hit. This is the artist perfectly distilled. The beat, produced by Jetsonmade and Pooh Beatz (the men behind “Bop,” important figures in DaBaby’s signature sound), is built around a mischievous piano riff that could summon a pantomime villain to the stage. The drum and bass boom underneath as DaBaby creeps into view, spilling pockets of one-liners as he goes. He raps about money, insists people call him the goat, and threatens to beat up anyone who disrespects him in front of their partner and kids. You take it as seriously as you want to take it.
The titular Suge is, of course, Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records, a once feared figure who has been painted as something of a puffed-up super villain of hip-hop as the years have slipped by. Both men were in their mid-20s when they established their respective companies, with DaBaby ostensibly finding inspiration in Suge’s sage when he opened the doors to Billion Dollar Baby. And like Knight, he doesn’t mind courting controversy — hell, he might just get in a relationship with it. Just last week he was arrested in Miami and charged with battery after arguing with a music promoter over payment for a performance, police said in an arrest warrant, the latest in a string of headlines. “I’m a young CEO, Suge,” DaBaby asserts on the song’s hook. It’s the only reference to Knight in the writing — all he needs to affirm his admiration for the magnet’s entrepreneurial skills back in the day.
Sure, there’s a tired reference to Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston that feels of another era, but “Suge” is not a dumb song. If SoundCloud rap has been regularly derided by old fashioned rap heads for being artistically bankrupt, and for dumbing down the form, DaBaby’s bop music straddles both sides of the debate by being both skillful and silly. His flow feels like a miracle as he studs his bars with complex couplets while ensuring his performance retains a breezy brevity. You can picture both Kendrick and Drake finding something to love.
Then there’s the video — a clip that in my mind positions DaBaby as the successor to Ludacris. Remember how Luda’s shorts felt like they were recorded in a bizarro world funhouse? DaBaby wasn’t going to let an obviously smaller budget dampen his ambition as he transforms into the most careless mailman this side of Sinbad’s character in Jingle All The Way and cosplays as Suge, fake muscles and all, like it’s a Chappelle’s Show skit. If nothing else, DaBaby might just make idiosyncratic rap videos cool again.
There can be a feeling of lethargy around the Grammys. Even if you don’t believe that awards are a litmus test for quality or importance (and I don’t), a win for DaBaby’s “Suge” would at the very least shake up the rap categories that for too long has leaned on the same heavyweight artists. Whatever the result, his triumphs indicate rap is moving forward as relentlessly as one of his verses. Suge would abide.