“Bitch, it’s DaBaby / What you heard about me?” —DaBaby, “Walker Texas Ranger”
When DaBaby was a child—this was 16 or 17 years ago, back when people were still calling him Jonathan Kirk—he got in trouble one day at school. It was his fourth-grade year, and he was beginning to grow into himself, which means he was beginning to test exactly how far he could push back against the people who were supposed to be in charge in any given situation. And in this case, it was his teacher who was in charge, so it was his teacher who he decided to push back against. So here’s what he did: As she was in the middle of teaching a lesson about integers, she turned around toward the board to write something down. And it wasn’t but for a couple of seconds, but that’s all the time that a young Mr. Kirk, already outgoing and silly and fearless, needed to turn the day upside down.
So, without warning or provocation, he quietly got up out of his seat, climbed on top of his desk without making a sound, stood up straight, took his shirt off, and then waited. At this point, the other children in the class started to giggle, and when they did the teacher turned around to see what was happening. She was so flummoxed by what she was looking at that her brain froze up for a beat. She wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to tell him to get down off the desk first or put his shirt back on first, so she just yelled his name. “Jonathan!” she screamed, and the kids laughed even more. “What are you doing?!” she continued. Young Mr. Kirk, now fully in control of the room, smiled the kind of smile only a fully realized person can achieve, and this is what he said back to her: “North Carolinaaaaaaaaaaa! Come on and raise up! Take your shirt off, twist it round your hand, spin it like a helicopter!” He was 10 years old and in school and decided a good way to spend the next few bits of his school day would be to show his nipples to everyone while standing on top of a desk and singing (yelling?) the chorus of Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up” at the teacher.
And listen, because this is the most important part of the above story: None of this actually happened. I made it all up right now. And, were I to guess, I’d say you probably believed it. And were I to make a second guess, I’d say I could’ve plugged just about anything into the end of that pretend anecdote and you’d have believed it. I could’ve told you that it ended with his flipping a desk over, or throwing a chair through a window, and leading the other students on a schoolwide rebellion like a very cute and tiny prison riot. Because that’s the kind of aura that DaBaby, a 27-year-old rapper from North Carolina who has announced himself to the universe with so much gravity that he’s beginning to tilt everything toward him, has in his electrons. Every story about him seems like it could be real, no matter how preposterous or otherwise unlikely, because of how preposterous and otherwise unlikely the true stories about him already are.
For example, there was the time he came up with an idea to start wearing a diaper around because of the “Baby” part of his name. (I’m still not sure whether this was a good marketing idea or a bad marketing idea, but given that nobody who knows about it will ever forget about it, I’m left to conclude that it was a good one, insomuch as the point of marketing is to get people to talk about and remember things.) For another example, there was the time he was shopping in a Louis Vuitton store and a rival rapper started needling him. The two got in a fight that ended with the rival rapper on the floor, dazed and spacey, his nose bloodied and his shorts down around his ankles while DaBaby videoed him for Instagram. (DaBaby, because he has a profound understanding of the way the internet works, turned the whole thing into a piece of merchandise.) And for a third example—and this one is legitimately terrifying and heartbreaking—there was the time he was involved in an altercation in a Walmart that led to the death of a 19-year-old.
And again, all of those things are true. And again, all of those things stretch across such wide and varied terrain that it turns everything attached to his name into a real possibility. And that’s part of the reason that DaBaby is such an interesting person, and such an interesting performer. And of course the other part of the reason that DaBaby is such an interesting person, and such an interesting performer, is that he is fucking good at rapping. (An easy comparison to make here is to 50 Cent, another talented rapper who strung together enough outlandish truths early in his career that everything became in play for him. Did you hear that 50 Cent accidentally sold drugs to an undercover officer? Did you hear that 50 Cent made a diss record that included everyone from Jay-Z to Brian McKnight? Did you hear that 50 Cent got shot nine times, including once in the face? Did you hear that 50 Cent lost over 50 pounds for a movie role? Did you hear that 50 Cent made over $100 million off of Vitaminwater?)
I like the way DaBaby raps. It’s confident, and energetic, and rarely has moments that feel like compromises. Those are the kinds of musicians I like the most; the ones who know what they want to do and work to do it, regardless of what may or may not be happening in the immediate universe around them. (The four-song stretch that opens his debut album, Baby on Baby, is a perfect example of this. It’s just him, and his spirit, and all of his teeth and all of his words and all of his hectoring. There are no acquiescences, no half-measures made in bargain.) Creatively, it’s a dangerous business model, because if it doesn’t work out—if, say, you happen to not have the kind of top-level skill set needed to pull something like that off—then you’re fucked. But when it does work out—when you are in possession of the kind of talent needed to be able to line up all the ideas in your head and package them together into something that feels good and new and powerful—it is wildly exciting. (Megan Thee Stallion is another example of a young rapper who operates on this wavelength. As such, it’s no coincidence that the two of them are among the most embraced and championed rappers working right now. It’s also no coincidence that the song she and DaBaby have on her new album, Fever, is so good.)
Have you ever seen a movie called Commando? It came out back in the ’80s. It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a retired Special Forces colonel named John Matrix who unretires after his daughter gets kidnapped. There’s a part early on when, after his daughter has been taken, he runs over to get in his car (a Ford Bronco) so he can chase after the people who took her. As he gets to the Bronco, though, he sees that the hood is ajar. He opens it and realizes that the bad guys have ripped out all the cables and hoses and brake lines, making it undriveable. Or, at least they’d made it undriveable for a regular human. But John Matrix is no regular human.
He opens the door, throws his machine gun over to the passenger side, then starts pushing the Bronco toward the edge of a road near the top of the mountain where he and his daughter had been living. As he gets the Bronco up over the edge, he jumps inside it. Gravity sends the Bronco into motion, and so now we have John Matrix driving himself down the side of a mountain in a dead SUV with no power steering and no brakes and no anything except his own muscles and his own willpower. It’s an impossible situation. But John handles it fine.
And that’s what I always think about whenever DaBaby raps. I think about DaBaby as the Bronco (DaBaby makes no attempt at steering around things when he raps, nor does he make any attempt at tapping on the brakes even a tiny amount—he simply goes forward, forward, forward and if something is in his way then he just runs it the fuck over, over, over), and I think about DaBaby as the driver too. Because who else could do what he does, in that way that he does it? Nobody, is my guess.