L il Baby has four pockets stuffed with cash, and he’d like to keep it that way. The 25-year-old rapper has spent the past 15 minutes teaching me to play cee-lo, a dice game that helped make him famous in certain Atlanta circles long before he reached legal drinking age. Outside, torrential rain falls on a collection of cars worth many, many mortgages.
Inside the headquarters of Quality Control, the most successful hip-hop label currently operating in Atlanta and home to Migos, City Girls, and Lil Yachty, three green dice bounce against the wooden floor. Baby, born Dominique Jones, is a patient and methodical teacher, calmly answering my inane questions about throwing technique. Every time he throws the dice he snaps his fingers, trying to will the numbers to his cause. “The object of the game is to get two of these [dice] the same,” Baby says. For example, the young rapper rolls a 4-4-2 and explains that his score would be two. There are additional rules: 4-5-6 is an automatic win, so is rolling two matching numbers and one 6; 1-2-3 is an automatic loss.
It’s complicated, but under Baby’s tutelage I — eventually — win $200, and reach for the pair of hundreds on the floor. That’s when Baby breaks into a grin. “Guess what?” he says. “They got to hit the wall.”
“I told you,” he says with a smirk. I maintain that he never told me, and look to his crew for support that never comes. Baby offers no leeway.
“You got to just keep shooting,” he says.
Within a couple of seconds, all of the money returns to Baby’s hands. Satisfied, he packs the dice up while finishing a blunt the size of Kawhi Leonard’s middle finger. As ashes hit the floor, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, the founder and COO of Quality Control, appears, as if endowed with a sixth sense for moments when Baby might say something that will land him in trouble. Baby is detailing a night when acquaintances chipped in money in hopes of seeing one of his winning streaks up close, the type that would leave everyone chasing him across the city to win their cash back. To this day, he says, he still hasn’t paid certain parties back from the nights when his hot hand went cold. It’s not because he doesn’t have the funds to give, he assures the room. It’s merely the principle of the matter.
“I don’t care if I owe you — in my head, I’m running off anyway,” Baby says, laughing. “I ain’t got no intention of paying them, for real. Like, I still owe niggas right now.”
“Are you taping this right now?” Coach K asks me.
“Yeah,” I say.
“He can tape that — I don’t give a damn,” Baby shoots back.
Lil Baby is, by many metrics, the most popular rapper in the world right now. He has the most-streamed album in the country this year, and even with projects from rappers like Drake or pop stars like the Weeknd to contend with, it’s not really close. Before he was a rapper, Baby was a constant presence in the orbit of QC. When Migos, Rich the Kid, Skippa Da Flippa, and Lil Duke were cutting their teeth in the label’s studio, he was right there, not rapping. A weed dealer with a prodigious reputation, Baby would wait for rappers to return from shows flush with cash that he might take from them, one way or another.
“They was getting money, but goddamn,” Baby says, still incredulous. “They probably get like 30 grand a show, but they’re doing three, four shows, so they come back with 50, 60, and I might win the whole 50.”
It was Coach K who noticed something in a 17-year-old Baby the young dealer had yet to see in himself. K is the power broker behind the millennium’s first cadre of Atlanta legends (Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane) and those shaping the city’s future (Migos, Lil Yachty). With a salt-and-pepper beard and slow gait, he’s the calm at the center of Quality Control’s constant hurricane. In Baby, he saw someone with the voice, style, and respect required for success in Atlanta rap’s ecosystem.
“I remember one day, we was standing outside the studio,” Coach K says. “I’ll never forget this. He had on all white, and I was just like, ‘Baby, man, why don’t you rap? Like, you got the swag, you got the lingo, you get respect around the city from the east side to the west side to the south side. Why don’t you rap?’ He used to be like, ‘Coach, I’m a street nigga.’ He used to laugh at me.”
Rap is a genre built on embellishment. It inspires correctional officers with delusions of grandeur to become faux kingpins and multicolored internet trolls to envision themselves as the most notorious gang member in America. But Baby’s life story was already interesting. He didn’t need hyperbole.
“I was just like, ‘Shit, half these rappers telling your story,'” Coach K continues. “‘Dog, your shit so real. I bet if you decide to do it, you’re going to be big.'”
By any standards, Lil Baby’s rise was unnervingly fast. After Coach K’s cajoling, Baby recruited Young Thug, already an Atlanta superstar, and his future collaborator, Gunna, to help teach him how to rap. It turned out he was good at it, a dexterous rhymer with a strong grasp of melody, firmly in the tradition of late-2010s Atlanta hip-hop: He favored booming trap drums, smeared Auto-Tune, and worked at a frighteningly productive pace. Within three years, he was a star: His second album, My Turn, was released in February and is the most streamed in the U.S. this year. Then the country began to fall apart.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Lil Baby, like millions of other Americans, took to the streets to protest. “That type of shit I would want to do if I wasn’t a rapper,” he says. “It’s like something that’s going on in history and time.”
But unlike the majority of protesters still marching for change, Lil Baby wrote a song about it. Released in June, “The Bigger Picture” was a daringly precise stream of consciousness that finds Baby grappling with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks against a simple, piano-led beat. “They killing us for no reason/Been going on for too long to get even,” he raps. “Throw us in cages like dogs and hyenas/I went to court, and they sent me to prison.” According to Baby and his team, the proceeds from the song will be donated to a variety of organizations.
To Lil Baby, “The Bigger Picture” isn’t a protest song. “I just rap about my life — all my songs are basically about me,” Baby says. “It was at a point where I felt I needed to say something.” Before he was a platinum-selling rapper, the system made sure to underscore the fact that his black life didn’t matter. “The Bigger Picture” isn’t a radical gesture; it’s Baby’s sheer existence that’s a more potent act of protest. “Now, this shit counts,” he says. “You gon’ hear me.”
“I’ve been a victim of police brutality,” he continues nonchalantly, while staring at his phone and placing a Chick-fil-A order for nuggets and an ice cream. “I’ve been in prison where white officers control you. I’ve been in a court system where white judges give you a different time than they would give someone white. There have been times I had a physical altercation with an officer, and he then grabbed me and took me to a room where there’s no camera. We have a physical altercation and left me in a room for about an hour. I’m in there yelling and screaming. I’m so accustomed to it, we don’t even make it no big deal.”
“But that’s a huge deal,” I respond.
“That’s what I was saying. Where we come from, we’ve got so accustomed to something going wrong. Right? Ain’t nothing we gon’ be able to do about it. I’m from Atlanta, where they had a unit of police that got dismantled for police brutality. The Red Dogs got dismantled for using way too much force. . . . That shit an everyday thing where I’m from.”
“The Bigger Picture” is among the most urgent artistic statements released since Black Lives Matter exploded into, by some counts, the biggest American protest movement ever recorded. Even if Baby isn’t rapping about anyone but himself, it’s clear people are listening: “The Bigger Picture” has been streamed more than 100 million times, and Coach K says it brought a new level of attention to Baby’s entire catalog.
“The Bigger Picture” shouldn’t have been necessary for people to take Baby seriously. The sociopolitical screed wasn’t a surprise for Lil Baby or his fans — he’s always been a thoughtful writer, wrapped in bass-filled beats — but for those not paying attention, or with a predisposition to writing off trap MCs in favor of more traditionalist lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, it was a culture shock. Someone who talks like Baby, drawl and all, isn’t the type of rapper who tends to be critically revered or obsessively analyzed, but he has long been discussing the ground-level effects of systemic racism and brutality; it’s impossible to escape. And as a new generation of protesters take to the streets, it’s not the jubilant Kendrick and Pharrell refrain of “We gon’ be alright” that they’re often heard shouting. Instead, people demand that cops “Move, bitch,” like Ludacris, or summon the spirit of the late Pop Smoke when chanting “Christian Dior, Dior/I’m up in all the stores/When it rains, it pours.”
“The Bigger Picture” isn’t perfect. At points it seems as if it hedges its bets. “Corrupted police been the problem where I’m from,” Baby raps in the second verse. “But I’d be lying if I said it was all of them.” When pushed on the idea that there can’t be good police in a fundamentally flawed and racist system, Baby pushes back.
“Just ’cause you work in a racist system doesn’t mean you racist,” he explains. “Damn near every system that got a job is a racist system. You know what I mean? CEOs be like old white people. You never know, they got to be some kind of racist ’cause at some certain age, your parent, that was the way of life almost. So I almost feel like all these corporations or whatnot may be racist. And black people are racist too.”
“Black people can’t be racist,” I shoot back.
“Why?” Baby responds. “Racist means to be just to your race.”
“Well, the thing about racism is you would have to have some type of power, and black people, historically speaking, don’t have any power to be racist. We can be prejudiced.”
“To me, a racist is someone who treats a different race than theirs a different way than they would treat theirs,” Baby says. “I feel like if you’re a black person and you treat all black people one way and all white people one way, you’re racist. I’m not a racist, so I give a white person a chance to talk and actually we get into it before I can say I don’t like you or not. And I feel the same way about a black person. You ain’t gon’ be my buddy just ’cause you’re black. Just straight up.”
Baby and I agree to disagree.
Dominique Jones grew up in Atlanta’s West End, a historic neighborhood where burned houses blend with encroaching gentrification and emerald-green trees. Over the two days I spend with him, any mention of it is met with resistance and disdain. “Do you have life insurance?” he asks, after I suggest we go see it. He momentarily mulls over the decision and goes back to his blunt and fast food, pushing the choice off to another day.
At one point, Baby walks into the Quality Control kitchen talking aloud about Scooby-Doo to no one in particular. When he returns, he begins addressing someone as “Velma.” I turn to Baby’s friends in confusion, and they quietly inform me that Baby thinks I look like the bespectacled teen detective.
By the next day, the Velma nickname has stuck. Indignities aside, Baby does begrudgingly acquiesce to drive through the West End with me. In 2017, Lil Baby introduced viewers to this world in the video for his first breakout moment, “My Dawg.” With an Auto-Tuned drawl, Baby painted a life he was partially still entrenched in. “Me and my dawgs, me and my dawgs/We tryna run in your house,” he sang. “We want them bricks, we want the money/You can keep all of the pounds.”
Three years later, riding past the Oakland Food Mart prominently featured in the video, it’s hard not to note that as Baby has become more economically free, his old neighborhood, too, has become a hot spot for the free market to take root. In 2013, $18 million in federal funding was secured for Atlanta’s Beltline, a project to develop a trail through the city that accelerated gentrification in neighborhoods like the West End. Five years later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dubbed the West End one of the city’s “upward-trending neighborhoods.”
“Only reason I don’t buy these houses now [is] because maybe three years ago, these houses that sold for 10,000, now they selling for 180,000, no work,” Baby says. And yet he notices that longtime residents of the West End don’t necessarily share his upward mobility. “All these people you see have been in the area for their whole life,” Baby continues. “It’s not that easy to make it away from here. Not too many people do; it’s like zero chance.”
The closer we get to Baby’s old neighborhood, the pricklier he becomes. As a group of children selling water see Baby’s white Rolls-Royce truck zooming down the road, they rush toward it. Yet, instead of slowing down, he speeds up and jokingly swerves toward the kids. With each mile, Baby grows more acidic, taking it as a personal affront when a dirt bike zooms past the car and I register no response. “He ain’t paying attention no more,” Baby sneers. “You ought to be capturing every car, every building, every house.”
“Don’t just sit here being serious. Smack shit out of you,” he continues. “I don’t want to sit around and be serious. You got to live a little. It’s fun. You work for Rolling Stone, man. Nigga of the world.”
Baby grew up in a small house with his mother, who worked in the post office after serving with the Marines, and two sisters. “He was the only boy, and I had two girls,” Miss Lashon, Baby’s mother says. “I spent a lot of time with him. He didn’t really have anybody.” Baby’s father was absent. When asked how that shaped her son, Lashon says, “I guess you can’t miss what you never had. It wasn’t like his father was in the picture and then took off.”
By 16, Baby was getting what he calls “real money,” enough to afford apartments and cars that would make most high schoolers jealous. Around that time he was dubbed Lil Baby by a man named Wicced. “I used to be going to sleep wherever, I used to leave my trash everywhere. Typical little baby shit,” Baby says. “They start calling me Lil Baby.”
Eventually, Baby would stop attending high school, committing full-time to drug dealing. “Needed the money, more than anything,” he says. “I knew all the drug dealers around my neighborhood. When I was like 10, 11, I was hanging out with a dude who was like 17. He was getting money to buy a car, having his own little spot. So he was a lot of my motivation, too.”
By the time Baby turned 17 himself, he had two condominiums that cost about $2,000 a month. Meanwhile, Baby was beginning to see the ways his friends’ lives were changing. Young Thug was ahead of him at Booker T. Washington High School, and at one point he shared a condo with Offset. “Offset was the rapper,” Baby remembers. “He’s coming to me like, ‘I got a two-bedroom condo, give you half of it,’ but he was going on the road so, shit, it was really like my condo.”
Then, at 20, it finally caught up to Baby. After being sent to jail three times, he was inevitably sent to prison for about two years on weapons and drug charges. “You gon’ have to be there to actually just fathom what it was like,” he says of his time behind bars. “It’s misery.”
By Baby’s estimate, he knows 20 people currently serving life sentences. Five of those are close personal friends. He refers to Quality Control’s studio, a space the size of a couple of conference rooms. “Imagine just sitting in QC until you die,” he says. “Whether you do everything I tell you to do, you’re in here until you die. So you ain’t living no other purpose, until you die. Man, that’s a fucked up way to live. I’d rather everybody just — you get a life sentence and they just take you in the back and kill you. I guarantee you, you asked half of the people who got a life sentence if they’d rather be taken out back right now and killed, they’ll say yeah. Guaranteed. Because what are you living for?”
“Hardest thing I’ve ever had to see in my life,” Miss Lashon says of watching her son go to prison. “I hope and pray I never have to go through anything like that again.” She visited him every weekend during his sentence, and she distinctly remembers a conversation that would ultimately change their lives: “He had called home. We talked like we always talk. And I asked him what was his plan when he got out. He was like, ‘Mom, I want to be a rapper.’ I was like, ‘A rapper? Really?’ You know how when people go away they say anything. [But] the day he came home he went to the studio, and it took off after that.”
Pierre “Pee” Thomas, Quality Control’s CEO, knew firsthand the allure of Baby’s old life. Pee, fatherly and proud when discussing his signee, has known Baby roughly since 2010, when he was a wiry teenager. “He used to run around my best friend Big,” Pee says. “Baby like my brother.” While Baby was locked up, Pee began planting seeds. “When he was in prison, I used to talk to him and tell him, like, ‘Yo, when you come home, try to get in the studio and rap,'” Pee continues. “I had a big influence in Baby switching over from the streets to the music.”
A couple of days after his release from prison in 2016, Baby arrived at the studio, ready to rap. After trying and failing to make a fully realized song, Baby said “fuck it,” and abandoned his dream. It wasn’t until January 2017 that he’d finally commit to his new path and finish a song. “Days Off,” the introduction to Baby’s inaugural mixtape, Perfect Timing, shows off a voice he had yet to settle into, a nasally delivery that sounds like an unpolished imitation of Future. Baby raps, “Savage for the money, goin’ hard for my kid/Sometimes I had nightmares ’bout the shit that we did.”
From there, Baby’s palette developed as he learned to mine feelings of heartbreak (“Close Friends”) and despair (“Emotionally Scarred”), all while his technical skills sharpened. On songs like “Spazz” and “Pure Cocaine,” Baby grew more and more deft. The speed of his performances and the growing fluidity of his delivery were antithetical to the hypnotic repetitiveness of peers like Gunna and 21 Savage. He’d continue to contend with his past on record, but he is adamant that his songs are not about him wrestling with any internal guilt he has yet to shake.
“You keep saying guilt,” Baby says. “I ain’t never been guilty. Even if I did it, I ain’t guilty.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t got no guilty conscience. I’m a firm believer in what’s done is done. And I don’t believe in conflict. I believe in manifestation.”
As Baby began to finish songs, Pee saw an opportunity to saturate the market. In 2017 alone, Baby released four projects; the following year, he’d drop three more. Pee’s formula was simple: Grab whatever songs Baby had lying around, sequence them, commission artwork, release to streaming services, repeat. The most challenging part wasn’t even making the music, but persuading Baby to hit the same circuit that forged the now-legendary work ethic of his predecessors, Migos. “I had to argue with him sometimes, because at the time he was making a lot of money in the streets and I used to put him on the road to do promo,” Pee explains. “He used to go through the Chitlin’ Circuit and do shows, but he wasn’t getting paid. He might be getting $500, $1,000 a show. In order for him to do these shows he got to get a van, drive three, four hours, go do the show, and come back.”
Rashad, Baby’s affable day-to-day manager, vividly remembers taking the budding artist to hole-in-the-wall clubs in places like Jackson, Mississippi. “Seeing him perform in those clubs, you don’t have production, you don’t have a screen, you don’t have pyrotechnics, you don’t have CO2. I don’t even think we had a DJ. I think I was just telling the DJ, like the club DJ, what song to play at the time. Like, he would be the performer, I would be in a DJ booth for the DJ, like, ‘Cool, play this song next. Play that song.'”
For Baby, the process was slow. “He used to be really frustrated, like, ‘This ain’t nothing. I make more money than this in the streets,'” Pee remembers. “I used to always tell him, ‘But you don’t have to deal with the consequences that you have to deal with in the streets. You ain’t taking no chances with your life and your freedom.’ I used to have to instill in his head to just trust the process. I used to always tell him, ‘Baby, just trust me. It’s going to pay off in the end.'”
A drug shortage finally curbed Baby’s appetite for his old life and cemented his commitment to a music career. “It probably was a drought for three weeks,” he says. “So I was like, ‘I’m straight. I don’t want to do it no more.’ So when it was time to go back and everybody got some again, I just didn’t get none. I just stayed rapping.”
After Baby’s car emerges from his neighborhood, we arrive at the burned-down husk of the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by two police officers on June 12th. A group of protesters are gathered to mourn Brooks. Stands selling Black Lives Matter shirts pepper the area, and a collection of candles, teddy bears, and photographs roast amid the hot and humid afternoon. “It’s walking distance from my neighborhood,” Baby notes.
For days now, the video of Brooks begging officers to let him walk home has been playing in a loop on my phone. As Baby pulls in, I describe being here as eerie.
“Man, somebody done died everywhere we done went,” Baby retorts forcefully. “Everywhere. We. Done. Went.”
For the past two days, he has described a bleak world, where death and injustice are daily realities for black people in Atlanta, with a resigned familiarity. But for a moment, even his cynicism cracks. “Now that I do got power, I can say something,” he says. “Where we come from, we’ve got so accustomed to something going wrong.”
As he pulls into the Wendy’s lot, a crowd mills, keeping guard. An armed man named Garry Stokes, apparently in charge of keeping the area secure, directs Baby to the back of the building. Stokes describes himself as a member of the National African American Nation and an “unbiased individual” working with the Brooks family. He tells his associates to make sure nothing happens to the rapper. “No one did care before the situation occurred,” Stokes says. “If they did, they just wasn’t to the point of where they wanted to stand up and express their opinion on what was going on.”
“We need a place for the community to be able to come to, for peace of mind,” he continues. “We need a place where the community can come to and get their training. They can get their help, especially when it comes to civil-rights training. Our main focus, and our main objective here, is to have a monumental peace center for the community.” (Two weeks later, Atlanta police would clear protesters from the site.)
Soon, children and their parents swarm Baby, hoping to touch a man who lived five minutes away for the bulk of his existence and is beginning to represent something else entirely. Baby poses for photos, while Coach K buys a handful of Black Lives Matter shirts.
Coach K doesn’t seem fazed that it took this long for the masses to notice the side of Baby he knew was there all along. “All those new listeners [after “The Bigger Picture”]?” he says. “They went back to listen to his work. ‘Oh, my God. Oh, this kid.’ Now they’re listening. That song caught them. I watched the 13th week, up four percent. The 14th week, up 12 percent. And I think this week it might be right at 12 percent, or right at 14 percent.”
“Me, him, and Pee was having a conversation,” Coach continues. “Like, ‘Man, who’s coming? You’re going to get this Number One.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t really care. I’m not caught up in first-week numbers.’ He said, ‘The real conversation is where I’m going to be in 10 weeks from now.’ I was like, ‘Damn, his mind was somewhere else.’ It’s about the marathon, not the sprint.”
Lil Baby isn’t even five years into his career, and he’s already envisioning a dramatized version of his life, whether that be a movie or documentary: “That’s why I really don’t want to talk, ’cause my shit be raw. I feel like my story before I got here is just like one in the million. So I don’t want to give it up yet.”
I ask if he can relay one jewel before that day comes, and Baby smiles. The blunts are finished, the dice are packed, and the young superstar agrees to answer one more question.
“I mean, you’re talking to me,” Baby says. “So that’s like a jewel. Right?”