On April 23, 1985, a billion-dollar beverage company felt the heel of a boot descending on its windpipe. Coca-Cola’s rival, Pepsi, was everything the late 19th-century drink was not — smooth, new, and sweet enough to quench the carbonated corn syrup-addled taste buds of the Reagan era. Instead of riding the storm, Coca-Cola buckled, changing their lauded secret formula to quell the masses. A new Coke, called New Coke, was born. Consumers revolted. The protests became the Boston Tea Party of colas, proving that the eternal flame of the American spirit is the right to choose the beverage that kills us slowly. Americans triumphed, classic Coke returned, but within the blunder, a lesson emerged. Coca-Cola’s grave sin wasn’t that it changed, but that it admitted to the public that nothing — not even overly processed sugar drinks — can withstand the test of time.
A few days removed from New Coke’s 35th anniversary, a North Carolina rapper made the same miscalculation. Sweeter, smoother, and designed to be more palpable to the masses, DaBaby’s third studio album, Blame It On Baby, is a course correction from a course that didn’t need correcting, an adjusted recipe meant to appeal to a subset of fandom that’s no longer his commercial core. DaBaby, in fits and spurts, finally switched up the flow.
“When you got a sound that don’t sound like nobody else and it’s brand new, you’ve got to feed it to ‘em,” DaBaby told Rolling Stone in 2019. “You’ve got to force it on ‘em.”
What DaBaby forced — and audiences loved — was a sonic signature equal parts staccato, cacophonous, and repetitive. While the majority of rap was firmly entrenched in melodic territory about drugs and imminent death, DaBaby burst onto the scene by force of personality; he was defiant and jubilant about the excesses of life. Across two albums released in a single year (Baby on Baby, Kirk) and a handful of hits (“Suge,” “Bop,” “Vibez”), he perfected this flow to the point that its continued use became part of the main narrative. “When you gon’ switch the flow? I thought you’d never ask,” he rapped on “Bop.” Then, he ignored the question.
“The flow,” though, is often a misnomer. What most armchair A&R’s are actually describing is DaBaby’s strikingly original style. It’s heavy on theatrics — explosive adlibs, gimmicky hooks, elaborate videos — and low on pathos. Experimentation, stylistic risks, and a flexible approach to art are laudable qualities in an artist as newly prominent and immediately recognizable as DaBaby, but every time he tries to play a new game on Blame It On Baby, it highlights weaknesses rather than uncovering new strengths.
On a three-song stretch on the new album — “Sad Sh*t,” “Find My Way,” and “Rockstar” — you begin to see where DaBaby intends to take the next step of his evolution. The North Carolina rapper briefly joins the rapper-singer rat race he upended just one year ago. Instead of brashness and bravado, DaBaby informs involved parties that he’s about to “do some sad shit for the real niggas,” deploying a pinched singing voice and selling a new kind of sincerity. He’s so impressed by his new skills that he informs a past lover that him singing in a rap song is proof that he’s innocent of past transgressions. By the time Roddy Ricch, a Compton rapper with a more complex, instinctual singing voice arrives, it signals a reprieve — until DaBaby decides that he will handle the hook duties on “Rockstar” himself.
The experiments with New DaBaby don’t dominate the new album, and many of the tracks feature the forceful dedication to staccato lyricism that’s differentiated Baby from a crowded field of rappers for over a year. For the most part, these tracks could just as easily fit in on Baby On Baby or Kirk; the only difference is the fast-growing familiarity we have with DaBaby. On the title track, he spends two minutes delivering a biography that hits the same bullet points — he shot a man in Walmart, went platinum, is a mainstay on The Shade Room, and is desired by many women — that he’s spent the last two projects mining to greater effect.
What’s new, even on the songs that find DaBaby firmly in his pocket, is the sense of aggrieved paranoia that tends to cloud many modern stars after a quick rise. Blame It On Baby frequently pits its protagonist against an amorphous media, fashioning him as a helpless victim. This is despite the fact that, during his swift ascent, DaBaby has been at the center of numerous altercations. In September 2019, TMZ released a video of his security guard punching a woman at a New Orleans show. A couple of months later in March, a video of DaBaby allegedly slapping a woman at a Florida concert was released. He would later apologize on Instagram, stating “I do sincerely apologize, I do. I am very sorry that there was a female at the other end of the flashlight on the phone.” On record, DaBaby raps “Finger fuck allegations, keep hatin’” and claims that the media wants to “see me go back.”
Just a year ago, DaBaby had a nearly unparalleled ability to read the room, inhabiting the bewildered zeal of a Charlotte YouTube prankster who became the most popular rap rookie of the year. It’s a skill he seems less inclined to deploy on his latest. Instead, bitterness at the trappings of fame is a dominant theme. Much of the album, from the protective mask DaBaby dons on the album’s cover to his complaints about trashy gossip blogs, rings hollow. For every song that sees him trying to do something new, there’s one that features the same flow, adlibs, and antics that got him here — albeit with a new edge — all to diminishing returns. While DaBaby can rap circles around most of his compatriots, he finds himself in a no-win situation on an album that seems like a pit stop. DaBaby’s greatest enemy on Blame It On Baby is his staggering prolific streak; the struggle to find something new means he’s fighting against his own current.
One of the most telling lyrics on the project arrives on “Can’t Stop.” DaBaby mentions that he can “turn piss into lemonade” and “shit into sugar,” thus creating chocolate pudding. It’s supposed to be a metaphor about the ways DaBaby has triumphed over his detractors. Instead, it’s a reminder that no matter how much you tweak a classic formula to appease the masses, it’s always important to source your new ingredients.