Nothing about music ages with more difficulty than enthusiasm.
After a year of struggling to raise funds for his cancer treatments, rap pioneer Jimmy Spicer died this September, just 61, and to honor him I dipped back into his nine-minute 1980 opus “Adventures of Super Rhyme” for the first time in years. Once more I wondered how impossibly antique old-school rap—real old-school, pre-Run D.M.C., yes yes y’all, one-for-the-treble, formative party rap—must sound to a kid for whom Biggie and Pac are distant voices. Spicer’s lush enunciation and playful need to expand his story to fill space sound extravagant, like those twee hobbitty British old folk songs that end every line with some kind of fa-la-diddly-dee nonsense.
As much as hip-hop loves to mythologize its origins, it’s futile to try to draw a line from the actual recordings of those prehistoric days to the sounds of today. That’s partly because rhyme styles have innovated and technology has pushed rap’s rhythms forward. But more so, while the excitement that comes from getting on the mic and finally being heard has been a constant over the years, the way that feeling is expressed is always embedded in its historical moment. Even The Daisy Age, a recent (and brilliant) Ace Records compilation of turn-of-the-’90s rap—an era that’s lip-serviced as a golden age—must require a leap of sympathetic imagination from anyone too young to have been there. Each new generation of listeners and musicians tells itself it’s more knowing and less innocent than its predecessors; each old generation hears sour nihilism in the laughter of the new kids.
Nobody’s gonna listen to DaBaby and think of De La Soul or the Funky 4+1—if nothing else, he’s a lot more violent. But the 27-year-old North Carolina rapper’s ping-ponging flow is what that enthusiasm sounds like today. Last year, DaBaby was just another talented kid with a pair of mixtapes to his name and an extravagant promotional style. (He called himself Baby Jesus and strolled around Austin in a diaper and gold chains.) But he superseded the hype this year with Baby on Baby, its title craftily descriptive of his style: DaBaby’s a one-man crew, his voice multi-tracked into a simulated choir of DaBabys that answer and agree with each other
DaBaby hasn’t developed the sort of persona that turns a great rapper into a durable star. “I’m like the Tupac of the new shit,” he boasts, but he has none of Pac’s haunted gravitas, though his style’s no less magnetic for lacking that. Nor, for all his real-life drama—he dodged manslaughter charges last year, and has been involved in several public beatdowns this year—do the fleet verses or “yeah yeah” and “good good” punctuation of “Suge” call to mind the muscular menace referenced in the song title. What leaps out of his bars isn’t just virtuosity (though try to keep up if you doubt his skills) so much as momentum, abetted by the video-game beats and squelchy bass of his go-to producer, JetsonMade.
There are no femme choruses sweetening the pot on Baby on Baby, and few features: When Rich Homie Quan shows up, his emotional keen feels like an unseemly imposition. Yet the music is taut without feeling austere, and though there are few sounds that register as “pop” by current standards, there’s something populist to it in the way the earliest rap was: It required no specified knowledge for you to get it. Rap has drawn up rules over time, as any maturing art form does, and split into differing camps, one prizing the nuance of lyricism, another preferring the intricacies of flow. But historically, listening to rap from the outside, it’s individual voices that have stood out, and the vocal imprints of the greatest MCs offer their own content—listen to Lil Wayne without understanding English and you could still fathom his appeal. Similarly, the kinetic charms of DaBaby’s flow are their own reward.
DaBaby released his second 2019 album in September, Kirk (DaBaby’s birth name is Jonathan Kirk), and this time around he knows the world is listening. On “Intro,” he addresses how he learned of his father’s death the same day he found out his album topped the Apple Music charts, but I’m happy to report that, on this bolt toward maturity, his voice darts just as athletically as on the simple and effective “Bop.” You can imagine how surly he gets on “Pop Star,” where he chafes against any accusations of what defensive rappers called “selling out” in olden times. There are more features than before, and since there’s something insular about his style, he’s still learning to rap comfortably in the company of others.
For all that, I prefer Kirk to Baby on Baby, though I can’t tell you if Kirk is a “better” album or if the pleasures of tracking DaBaby’s ricochet flow are simply cumulative. That’s not usually how it works: Pop thrives off first impressions. Think of all the artists whose debuts are the best thing they ever did, or whose favorites are the first one you happened to hear. So much music impresses you with a freshness that can’t be duplicated even after an artist refines their work. But the simple fact is, the more I listen to DaBaby the more I want to listen to DaBaby.
Someday his exuberance may sound as corny and dated to hungry MCs (or the stars of whatever style follows rap) as Jimmy Spicer adopting a Bela Lugosi accent and confronting “Coward Hosell” over a disco beat does to today’s rappers. And those kids will find a new way to channel their enthusiasm into something that feels cool and current to their contemporaries. If we’re lucky, that is—because when that spirit is totally squelched, we’ll be truly screwed.
When: 8 p.m Sat. Nov. 16
Tickets: All ages; $45-$65; more info here