In a time when ‘mumble rappers’ are a staple, and an easy target for hip hop purists, it’s sometimes hard to take MCs seriously that do just that – mumble.

Dominique Jones, better known as Lil’ Baby, is the antithesis of that argument. Just 25 years of age, this Atlanta MC has been on my radar for three years and has gone through a career trajectory not unseen in this Spotify era, but one that has taken him to heights his mumbling flow might never have imagined.

After serving two years in prison for drugs charges, Baby started his run with his Perfect Timing mixtape that had early features from Lil’ Yachty and Young Thug. Harder Than Hard and 2 The Hard Way followed, but it was Too Hard in 2017 that kicked the door down.

The lead single ‘All Of A Sudden’ featuring Memphis’ Moneybagg Yo, is the song that changed everything. Riding a Dmactoobangin beat, the track recently hit one million units and, as Dmac recalls, it was a beat he “made in my granny back room on head phones”. From the same mixtape ‘Freestyle’ is another telling tale where he literally foreshadows his career from then, to now.

May 2018 saw the release of his debut album Harder Than Ever, and it was clear having Quality Control’s Coach K overlooking the project meant impeccable hood marketing and feature placements. By this time Lil’ Baby was one of my most anticipated artists as far as new music drops, and ‘Southside’ was the song that hit me like a brick wall.

Produced, ironically, by Southside, the track and video is a homage to where he is from, and includes a lot of colloquialisms that might go over the head of non-Atlanta natives, like in the chorus “long live Troup, my OG, man that nigga from the southside” – a reference to slain rapper Keith Troup from Atlanta – and “I’m with Derez in Clayco” – mentioning Derez De’shon of ‘Hardaway’ fame, and Clayco aka Clayton County in Georgia – one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the region, and, clearly, south of the city. In the song he shows his ability to talk a lot of trash, but also to ride the beat with skill, and starts to show the type of lyrical ability not often seen from many new school MCs.

The big feature on the album is, of course, ‘Yes Indeed’ with Drake, and the first track to put him in front of millions of fans globally. Now clocking in at over 500 million plays, it’s a plodding Wheezy/B-Rackz beat that suits Lil’ Baby more than Drizzy, but the combined star power was a signal of what was to come, hitting top ten on the Billboard Hot 100, and features the hilarious ‘wah wah wah, bitch I’m the baby’ line.

Not content with this major label chart success, he then went back to the street route and released a street mixtape with close friend and College Park (south of Atlanta) native Gunna. Another on a fierce career success trajectory, the synergy between the two was instant and the mixtape spawned a ton of hits. Look for bangers like ‘I Am’ with it’s string based Quay Global beat, ‘Never Recover’ with a feature verse from Drake, or the huge opener ‘Off White VLONE’ alongside Chicago’s Lil’ Durk and Canadian Nav. As a lead track it’s quite a statement and pays homage to Virgil’s Off White and A$AP Rocky’s VLONE brands. Its new school braggadocio at it’s best over a Turbo beat.

The album’s key track though, is ‘Drip Too Hard’. Once again, Turbo provides the beat and the song is a reference to each artists ‘Drip’ and ‘Hard’ mixtape history, but is also topical and relevant for them as individuals. There is something aesthetically awesome about the song, and the marriage between the beat, and the way each of them weaves in and out of it. As always Lil’ Baby reps his hometown, but also peppers it with some reflection on how his home state views him now, on lines like “I’m from Atlanta where young niggas run shit, I know they hatin’ on me, but I don’t read comments” and how life is becoming a blur, “doin’ all these shows, I’ve been on the road, I don’t care where I go, long as I get paid.”

It’s that type of subject matter that might led you to think it’s all money and women for Lil’ Baby, but the ‘Close Friends’ track on Drip Harder was a signal that there is a lot more to him than just that. A reflective tale, Baby turns inward and explores relationships he has had, musing “we started off as good friends, somehow you turned into my girlfriend”, then how things sour as “lately baby been actin’ so rude…but I ain’t gon lie, I miss the old you.” The track is quite telling, and showed his ability to be much more than a trap rapper.

In November 2018 the Street Gossip mixtape arrived and featured a stacked list of guests including Meek Mill, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, NoCap, Offset, and, of course, Gunna. Highlights include the Metro Boomin’ produced ‘Ready’ with Gunna, a Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz collab on ‘Anyway’, and the Wheezy banger ‘Section 8’ with Young Thug. I don’t mean to skip over Street Gossip, but some of it was a bit pedestrian, and nothing could prepare for what was coming on My Turn – his major label sophomore effort.

If all the signs were there that Lil’ Baby was more than just a mumble rapper, My Turn puts all that talk to bed once and for all. Now a fully developed hood lyricist, the 20 track album released in late March 2020 is so good, it’s jaw dropping.

The track that hit me on first listen was the Quay Global produced ‘Heatin’ Up’ featuring Gunna. In the opening verse Lil’ Baby’s promise blossoms in full force with a staggered flow spitting “keepin’ my composure, never sober, never chokin’, always smokin’ doja” and “I ain’t changed, I stayed the same and maintained, it’s safe to say the kid getting’ older” – virtually lyrically confirming my thoughts on his progress from simplistic beginnings, to My Turn.

Quay Global also laid the bed for ‘Woah’, the albums lead single, where he reminds us he is “stand alone, not your regular rapper”, and on ‘Emotionally Scarred’ picks up where ‘Close Friends’ left off on Drip Harder two years earlier. A tale of how his younger, trap life has affected him, and how he has had to cut off some older friends – a casualty of the life he now leads, and how that has affected those around him. Telling lines like “I just cut off all of my friends and brought my brothers in” and in the chorus laments “I’m emotionally scarred, that ain’t even your fault, but don’t listen to them haters tryna fill your ears with salt”.  It gets deeper too as he states “I ain’t got nothing against you, we human, we all got issues, but I’m tired of being tired, that part of me done died”.

It’s this progression as an artist, and his ability to fully release his lyrical capabilities that make My Turn his finest long player to date, and I would say has his finest moment on ‘Heatin’ Up’ – but Lil’ Baby delivered that on his stunning response to the turmoil the USA finds itself in post the George Floyd killing at the hands of the police, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

On the one-off single release ‘The Bigger Picture’ he expertly conveys his thoughts on the situation, his relationship with the police force, his own discrepancies and criminal past, and just keeps it real. Check lines like “It’s too many mothers that’s grieving, they killing us for no reason”, the stark reality of “fucked up the way that we livin’ is not getting better, you gotta know how to survive, crazy I had to tell all of my loved ones to carry a gun when they go outside”, and the sobering “I see blue lights, I get scared and start runnin’, that shit be crazy, they ‘posed to protect us”.

Lil’ Baby doesn’t shirk his responsibilities either, confessing “altercations with the law, had a lot of them” and confirms his belief “we get it, the system is wicked”, and then nails it with “I never been a fan of police, but my neighborhood know I try to keep peace, so it’s only right that I get in the streets, march for a reason”, and “our people died for us to be free”.

‘The Bigger Picture’ is the apex of a career that started in the streets, spent time incarcerated, then, on release has gone from strength to strength. Sure, Lil’ Baby does mumble with his vocal delivery – but a simple mumble rapper he is most certainly not. It’s this Atlanta, Georgia spitters’ time to shine.