This essay appears as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.
Set aside the obvious misogyny fueling much of the protest in support of Lil Baby after he failed to bring home any major awards at shows like the Billboard Music Awards and the AMAs. Those protestors did have a point: The establishment let the Atlanta rapper down in a huge way this year. After his sophomore album, My Turn, dominated the Billboard 200, his mid-year single “The Bigger Picture” peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100, and the rapper himself was featured on seemingly every hip-hop album released between February and November of 2020, you would think he’d at least warrant a Best Rap Album nod at the upcoming 2021 Grammys.
But no — instead, Lil Baby was “snubbed” at every opportunity, losing awards in Best New Artist at the AMAs to Doja Cat and Album Of The Year at the BET Hip-Hop Awards to Megan Thee Stallion. While the fans who took to Twitter to rail against these offenses did give off a distinct air of disdain for the female competitors — no coincidence, as hip-hop has presented sexist double standards as the standard operating procedure for the better part of the last three decades — they did make some salient arguments. While Megan Thee Stallion’s “album” Suga was marketed and described as an EP — a not very well-received one, at that — Doja Cat’s been around since 2014 at least (although she and Lil Baby have arguably risen in parallel, as both truly broke out in 2018 with the releases of their respective debut albums). However, no matter what the awards shows and cultural gatekeepers may think, Lil Baby has proven to be the people’s champion, with the stats and public support to back his claim.
After dropping an album, a mixtape, and a collaborative mixtape with Gunna in 2018, Lil Baby hibernated for much of the next year, sporadically poking his head out of his recording studio burrow to contribute a feature verse here or a loose single there. He established his working chemistry with similarly-named North Carolina rapper DaBaby on “Baby” from the Quality Control compilation, Control The Streets, Vol. 2, continued it on DaBaby’s sophomore project Kirk, and dropped “Out The Mud” with Future that summer, offering fans the first inkling of what would become his star-making sophomore album eight months later.
The long lead offered a masterclass in rolling out one’s album. The “Out The Mud” marketing featured no mentions of an upcoming album, allowing Lil Baby to work in relative peace while still stoking fans’ hunger for another full-length. The first hint he gave that the album might be close to completion was November’s lead single “Woah,” which signaled that the album, now tentatively titled My Turn, was coming soon. Baby slowly accelerated the pace, releasing singles in shorter and shorter intervals until he finally unveiled the new project, which beat the utter breakdown of the music industry by a little under a month — and somehow outlasted the initial lockdown, a summer of civil unrest, and the seeming formation of a whole new status quo.
Not only was Lil Baby’s songwriting improvement apparent from the breakout of atypical topics (for him) on “Emotionally Scarred” and “The Bigger Picture,” but the latter song also became an unofficial protest anthem. In the process, Lil Baby became an accidental revolutionary despite shying away from the spotlight, which he’s even prone to do during his own performances. Meanwhile, Drake admitted that he wanted to put the younger rapper on his TikTok-dominating single “Toosie Slide,” Kanye West confessed that he wanted to collaborate as well, and everyone from rising stars to established vets reached out to secure a placement from him, even as he boasted that his asking price had reached six figures.
Here’s a short — and likely woefully incomplete — list of the artists whose projects Lil Baby popped up on this year: 42 Dugg, 6lack, Big Sean, Blac Youngsta, Blueface, City Girls, Davido, Fivio Foreign, Future, Gucci Mane, Gunna, Iann Dior, Jack Harlow, Moneybagg Yo, Lil Durk, Lil Keed, Lil Mosey, Lil Wayne, Lil Yachty, Mulatto, Nav, NLE Choppa, Polo G, Pop Smoke, Rich the Kid, RMR, Rod Wave, Tee Grizzley, and T.I. all put in the call and secured the feature in 2020. That’s not bad for a guy Young Thug says he once had to pay to take rap seriously.
In fact, that may be the only reason he may have been overlooked for some of the bigger honors. Lil Baby doesn’t quite seem like the guy who shows up to industry mixers to press flesh with the movers and shakers of the music biz. Nor has he fully embraced the expectations of fans. He spoke openly about avoiding politics after the success of “The Bigger Picture,” demurring on the opportunity to become a leader when he’s just getting a handle on being a coveted rap star. And while he’s had impressive commercial success, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, the two artists who bested him at recent awards shows, do have Hot 100 chart-toppers to their names — something Lil Baby has yet to accumulate even with all his newfound stardom.
However, maybe all that he has accomplished is enough for him. He’s certainly making money, which seems to be his primary motivation, and his fans are numerous and vocal. If Lil Baby had any interest in Grammys, he’d have put more effort into making the kind of music the Academy rap voters seem to value — see this year’s nominees D Smoke, Freddie Gibbs, Jay Electronica, Nas, and Royce Da 5’9, the very antithesis of the vibey, hypnotic trap music contemporary fans currently champion. While it’s clear that there might be a little intellectual (and decidedly anti-Southern) bias at play in this year’s nominees, Lil Baby has far surpassed each of them commercially and possibly even culturally. The streams, the tweets, and the records booming out of vehicles at top volume as they cruised through near-deserted streets don’t lie. Whatever the “industry” thinks, Lil Baby is the 2020 People’s Champion of hip-hop. Take that to the bank.