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The Greatness of DaBaby’s Chart-Topping, Ass-Whippin’ 2019

The Charlotte rapper went from a nobody to one of hip-hop’s biggest stars in 2019, but the way he did it is even more impressive

Alycea Tinoyan

I knew I was a fan of Jonathan Kirk, better known as DaBaby, when his songs transformed from music to stimulants for me. They began to dance through my headphones and jack up my brain. It didn’t matter what time of day it was. At breakfast, if I heard his summer smash “Suge,” I raised my hands like I was ready to fight. At parties, be it in Brooklyn or New York’s Lower East Side, if Kirk played through speakers, my shoulders bent, my back broke, and I would motor up an invisible lawn mower and push it through the dance floor. I know the lyrics to “Baby Sitter” better than the Bible. (Please, don’t tell my momma.) It is possible I am sick, infected with the holy divination DaBaby has given our nation. Do not seek help for me; I am happy to live with my disease.

It’s a reflection of the year that DaBaby is one of its highlights. Who else but a frenetic-paced rapper hellbent on not waiting until the beat drops to start rhyming could be the sigil carrier of such a hectic 365 days? Any year can feel long, drawn out, and tiring by its end. But with DaBaby’s energy carrying you through each day, at least there’s a tint of vivality, a steroid even, to liven up our worst moments.

The highlight of his year wasn’t in the sugary sounds from “Suge” or the rambunctious raps on “Vibez” or even the high-energy sets featured daily on his Instagram. DaBaby’s spontaneity carried him through 2019; his zeal for life and online antics and the flashy beams of his ebullient grills carried him from being an unknown Charlotte rapper to a chart-topper. Nearly 10 months ago, DaBaby was a ghost. He wasn’t a brand. Then, he released Baby on Baby and Kirk and went back-to-back like a ’90s Bulls team, grabbing the Billboard no. 1 album spot with the latter. Now he’s vibing on poppy synth beats next to Lizzo and tag-teaming sad-boy emo-trap croons with Post Malone. Lil Nas X came down from “Old Town Road” fame and tapped DaBaby for the remix to his second single, “Panini,” where DaBaby, if you were wondering, absolutely FLOATED through the verse. I don’t make the rules, but if you go from rap obscurity to Rap’s Taylor Swift (hi, Posty) asking you for a few bars, you might have some juice.

Watching his stage shows can leave you confused. Did an inflatable child just hit the dougie at the BET Awards next to a few men in inflatable muscle shirts? Are they throwing money into a crowd of teenagers? Is that an actual adult human being wearing a toddler’s diaper? WHEN DID THE JABBAWOCKEEZ GET HERE?! But the performances are different than anything else we saw this year. They’re zesty. They’re fun. They’re a combination of the weird randomness hip-hop should still lean into. DaBaby bills himself as a tough guy, yes. Who could ever take that away from a man who literally whipped someone’s ass so much he came out of his clothes? But he also fancies himself a jester. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s enjoying himself. It’s palpable on every song and each online foray he finds himself in. Given that, it’s easy to become a fan. Even if you still find yourself hatin’, the rest of the world caught up on the viral talent. In 2019 alone, DaBaby has had 1 billion streams on Spotify.

He raps with a specific energy. It’s braggadocious and feisty. He’s an immovable force, his lungs unflinching as if they’re coated with vibranium. His voice booming and piercing, a sultry sound made in the South that can harmonize with any beat. DaBaby is indefatigable. He’s telling you he’s the best in the world. And whether that’s true, or not, I wouldn’t challenge his right to say so. I just told you he beat a dude’s ass so bad that he came out of his clothes. If Kirk says he’s the greatest of all time, then Kirk is the greatest of all time.

DaBaby’s creativity shines through in his music videos. In “Suge,” perhaps his most popular song, he dons an inflated muscle suit and a turtleneck and walks around an office building slapping the unanointed, like Bernie Mac in 2003’s Head of State with Chris Rock. He flexes throughout, rapping while warning, “I’ll slap the shit out a nigga, no talkin’, I don’t like to argue wit’ niggas.” In “Goin’ Baby” he decries flying commercial jets after a stewardess made him and his friends put their Louis Vuitton backpacks on the ground, which is why the first shot is him counting money on a private jet with small baby dolls strapped into the seats. With “BOP,” he got 100 million (and counting) people to watch a rap musical. Over the year, DaBaby’s art has evolved from loud jokes to loud artistry. He’s now a creative. It’s no longer just diapers and dolls. Now, there’s choreographed numbers from influencers as he runs from officers in inflatable masks. It’s like Richard Pryor was given the keys to a multimillion-dollar set for satire and then casted Omarion to dance in the middle of the chaos. I still can’t believe they let him and Stunna 4 Vegas act a fool on Jimmy Fallon’s set or that Lorne Michaels brought him on Saturday Night Live, in Gucci track pants and a Larry Johnson jersey, to perform while he humped the air and his dancers twerked. My man has gamed the whole system. It’s hilariously delightful to watch.

Perhaps the best distillation of Kirk’s captivating nature was his joint freestyle this summer for XXL with Megan Thee Stallion (which, whew, my god), YK Osiris, and Lil Mosey for the magazine’s vaunted freshman class selection. Kirk stepped up last for the longest freestyle of the quartet, put his hood on, and got to work. He was instantly electric. Megan diddy-bopped behind him as he crooned. I watch this video at least once a week. It’s like drinking coffee for me. I don’t know exactly what it is about it. Maybe it’s that in the first few breaths he says he’ll “BREAK a nigga in half like a Kit-Kat.” That shit’s better than anything Frank Sinatra ever made.

Like any classic DaBaby heater, he begins ferociously and then the energy climbs to a steady build, this time over a DJ Scheme beat. His lyrics are jocular. It’s like watching rounds of a heavyweight fight go by in real time. Everything about the freestyle completes the full performance. He belittles the police because he has more money than them. He says he enjoys eating steak with his family on yachts. He gives us a history lesson on when his family moved to Charlotte. He emphasizes what we already knew, that “if somebody touch me, somebody die.” Each bar is a hook to the temple. Each crescendo a crack on the cranium leaving your eyes fluttering. At one point he throws $55,000 on the ground, as if to say, “Fuck this money, I got plenty more.” He bangs his bars to match the beat. “YEAH I’M COMING LIKE BLADE IN THIS BITCH / Fuck around and walk down in a trench coat,” he snarls and glares into the camera before ensuring us that “They know Baby gon’ blow, he da’ bomb / They know Baby was just in Miami, now he in L.A., nigga think he LeBron.”

The behavior DaBaby exudes isn’t that different from the classic macho, male rapper. He’s not rapping about much different. It is a similar story of mistakes, money, and models. But the way he does it makes you want to root for him. He’s telling us a story in a way I didn’t think was possible. I still can’t afford any of what he’s talking about, but the way he presents his vision of the world is inviting. Not in the way that Rick Ross paints images of cigar-filled clubs and Miami nights, or how Drake rolls through Canadian tundras in silver Rolls Royces, or the glitzy allure of bouncing through Houston with Meg and the Hotties on big rims with big cups and big hats to match. DaBaby is homegrown and familiar. He’s any boy from the block with a rap vision. And now he’s bigger than the world he’s dreamt up. I can’t become DaBaby, but I feel happy that I can watch him ascend. Or, maybe, it’s just that smile. Honestly. It’s probably just that silver-and-diamond-encrusted smile.