In the volatile universe of rap music, traditionalists and young trendsetters butt heads like rams, and artists can blow up and flame out in a matter of months. But DaBaby, the Superman-tough 27-year-old Charlotte rapper who has soared to the center of the zeitgeist over the course of 2019, isn’t a disruptor or a visionary—he’s a stabilizer. He is rap’s brightest new star, the artist that connects all others, and his tremendous glow-up is best understood in terms of the artists with whom he’s collaborated in the last six months.
Post Malone, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, and Chance the Rapper, all modern heavyweights who blend hip hop with other styles, have each solicited a DaBaby feature, seeking out his commercial appeal and cool factor. In the vast ecosystem of Baby rappers, “Baby,” DaBaby’s song with Lil Baby, marked the year’s most important Baby summit, and perhaps even a coronation of DaBaby as the new king of the Babies. His frequent guest verses reveal him to be ultra-consistent rather than versatile; the divergent modes of the Dreamville soul chop “Under the Sun” and Megan Thee Stallion’s vicious trunk-rattler “Cash Shit” show that DaBaby doesn’t adapt to different sounds—they adapt to him.
The parallels between Megan and DaBaby’s styles and careers are uncanny. They are both Southern alpha dogs and formalists who build risqué verses out of clever lyrics, precise flows, and ironclad bravado. They experienced the death of a parent in the same week, in late March, and were consequently put in the uncomfortable position of having to grieve while navigating newfound fame, all without breaking stride. On “INTRO,” the stirring opener to his new album KIRK, DaBaby relives the day he received word that his father had unexpectedly died on the eve of his 30-city tour. “How the fuck I make it to the top same day I lost the nigga that had me? How a nigga perform on BET and a year ago couldn’t afford a sandwich?” he wonders. KIRK, which arrives on the six-month anniversary of DaBaby’s dad’s death, is a tribute to the marrow-deep bond that exists between father and son. The title refers to their surname, and the album cover features a photo of DaBaby as an infant, sitting on his father’s lap.
“INTRO” is the rare occasion in which DaBaby isn’t rapping from behind a comedic, bulletproof veneer, and as a result it’s as impactful as any song he has ever made. The remainder of KIRK is a more oblique homage to his father, a return to the norm that finds DaBaby once again baring the sparkling, diamond-encrusted grill permanently affixed to his teeth into a provocative smile. DaBaby revels in his many conquests: sexual, financial, the kind that seem to find him in shopping centers, and his conquest of the rap game. DaBaby was born for stardom, and, judging from KIRK, he seems to love it.
DaBaby’s regular invocation of vehicular speed makes KIRK feel like one continuous, relentless flex. His favorite ad-lib (“Vroom!”) pops up in nearly every track. On “Off The Rip,” he peels off on both cops and broke boys still riding the city bus: “I’m riding past 12, flying through fast as hell, flickin’ a nigga off/ I’m revving the gas, burning out on niggas’ ass, I’m showing my engine off.” He and his crew whip ATVs in the “INTRO” video, and the titular “VIBEZ” arise in the course of his direct transfer from a private jet to a presidential convoy of Suburbans. Vehicles alternate as setting and metaphor for sex: “She treat me like a motorcycle/ Ride my like a motorbike,” he raps on “iPHONE.” The album’s brisk pace (13 tracks, 35 minutes) enhances the sensation of speed. DaBaby’s preference for short songs is more a function of his personal style than the modern conventions set by SoundCloud rap. He is both concise and verbose, breathless and composed. He raps like Justin Bieber drives, if the cops never managed to pull Bugatti Biebz over.
One sign that DaBaby is equipped to handle stardom is that he transparently doesn’t care about anyone besides his family and friends. “Don’t give a fuck about the world, just ’bout my people,” he raps on “INTRO.” “iPHONE” is about staying off his phone to limit his contact with both social media and his many lovers. Still, KIRK underscores just how much of a ham DaBaby really is. He expresses pleasure in handing out high-fives in airports and being recognized everywhere he goes on account of his clout, innate charisma, handsome face, and big muscles. “I know I look good, so take your picture,” he raps on “REALLY.” An incident in June, in which his security beat one persistent photo-seeking fan into a coma, suggests that he prefers to keep fans at an arm’s length—to be seen, not touched.
KIRK ends with “XXL,” a song DaBaby first previewed nearly in full back in April and first performed in July, when he rapped alongside Megan Thee Stallion in their XXL Freshman cypher. The album version features a muscular beat, with church bells ringing as if announcing DaBaby’s triumphant arrival in some town square. As usual, his raps are of the chest-thumping variety, buoyed by the kind of macho spirit that several interviews and social videos suggest he inherited from his father. In an Instagram video posted two days after his dad died, DaBaby explained, “If I sit around on that crybaby shit, [my dad is] going to look down and be like, ‘Aye. You pussy.’ I ain’t pussy, so I’m finna go hold it down, I’m finna go be the big dawg, nigga. My last name KIRK.”