The following story is the hip-hop cover of Billboard’s 2021 R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players issue, dated Aug. 7, 2021. The R&B cover story of the same issue will run online Wednesday, Aug. 4.
Lil Baby has inhaled the last piece of his beef short rib inside Atlanta’s plush brunch spot Toast on Lenox, and is about to dig into why he has had such a wildly successful past year when his phone starts to ring. He pauses the conversation for a very important FaceTime: His 2-year-old son, Loyal, is calling to tell his dad about a significant W in potty training.
Loyal also has a lofty request: He wants to meet Batman. Baby doesn’t ask for more details — without hesitation, he agrees to facilitate a meeting. “Batman’s gon’ come,” he reassures his son. “You’ll see.”
The rapper, born Dominique Armani Jones, is only 26 and on a major professional hot streak. Yet at a time when most young artists would be relishing fame and fortune, Baby has already shifted his priorities elsewhere. “Everything I’m doing is really for my kids,” he says of Loyal, and his 5-year-old son Jason. When we first sat down to brunch, he avoided eye contact, but as he dives into his life as a father, he perks up, his voice no longer quivering. “I want more kids than I got because once you get older, you start to look at life differently,” he continues. “Where I come from, I’m the only one, so I have to build the generation up and keep the family going. I need more children to continue the legacy.”
That vision of legacy has sharpened recently for Lil Baby, a high school dropout and one-time weed dealer who, over the past 18 months, has not only joined hip-hop’s A-list, but reached its peak. His second album, My Turn, released in February 2020, was his mainstream breakthrough, a hip-hop missive defined by his frenzied delivery and thoughtful storytelling that topped the Billboard 200 for five weeks. This year, he also emerged as a top-notch co-star, working alongside rap heavyweights Drake (“Wants and Needs”) and J. Cole (“pride. is. the. devil”) on top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits as a featured artist, then teaming up with Lil Durk for collaborative LP The Voice of the Heroes, which returned Baby to No. 1 with 150,000 album-equivalent units in its debut week, according to MRC Data.
And while those feats have propelled him to stardom, his position as a leader in the Black community is what has helped set him up as a potentially generation-defining artist. Last year, he wrote “The Bigger Picture” in response to the police killing of George Floyd — a rallying cry that was poignant but not preachy, bringing African Americans together for a common goal amid a chaotic period across the nation. Offering a more urgent dimension to the typically reserved rapper’s approach, “The Bigger Picture” reached No. 3 on the Hot 100, at that point the highest-charting song of Lil Baby’s career.
“To make that song about social justice, and even talk about what happened to George, was phenomenal,” says Philonise Floyd, the younger brother of George Floyd. “I thank [Baby] a lot for that, because he let a lot of other people understand that, ‘I might be from the streets, but I understand what’s going on in this world.’ ”
Baby’s heroics went beyond “The Bigger Picture”: In May, he joined the Floyd family at the White House, alongside attorney Ben Crump, to support passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. (The House of Representatives passed the bill in March, but the Senate has yet to approve it.) “He wanted to make a difference,” says Crump of Baby. “He reached out to people he knew to help George Floyd’s daughter, and that was his first involvement. He just continued to use his influence to encourage his followers to educate themselves so we can make a change, so this won’t happen to other unarmed Black people.”
And Baby hasn’t just acted on a national stage: He has devoted to his hometown of Atlanta as well. In June, he bought out an entire Foot Locker store and gave away sneakers in his old neighborhood; afterward, Baby downplayed his efforts on Instagram, telling fans that he was working on more important things that he wasn’t ready to share on social media. He knows that his community needs a hero, not a celebrity figurehead. That mindset informs his every move, and may ultimately define his time in the spotlight.
“My life feels like a responsibility,” says Baby. “I’m not even trying to be no role model, honestly. [But] now that I know that I am, I try to carry myself differently, because I got people watching. I don’t even be doing what I really want to do. I do what I gotta do now.”
When Lil Baby was first released from jail — in 2017, for possession of marijuana with intent to sell — and began his rap career in earnest, Quality Control co-founders Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas spotted a diamond in the rough. “The first records he made coming out of prison — when he played them, I was like, ‘These are not great, but they’re good,’ ” recalls Thomas. “He looked at this like a hustle. This is the same type of dedication he had to making money in the streets. He was treating the studio like his music is the product, so he was dedicated to perfecting his craft and turning it into some money.”
Intrigued by Baby’s potential, Lee and Thomas signed him to Quality Control at a time when the label was molding Migos into superstars while building its roster with budding talent like Lil Yachty and City Girls. When Baby’s 2017 mixtapes Harder Than Hard and Too Hard started gaining underground attention — and when his subsequent 2018 debut, Harder Than Ever, made him a star, thanks in part to his top 10 hit with Drake, “Yes Indeed” — Baby channeled his street savvy into a legitimate endeavor: the music industry. He recalls the day he quit hustling, a wide grin on his face. “I started making more money rapping than I did hustling — monthly, I’m saying,” he says. “At that point, I made [$500,000] rapping: 20 bands a feature and four shows a week. It was no risk. Who ain’t going to take the lowest risk?”
His entrepreneurial instincts developed further when he launched his own imprint, 4PF (Four Pockets Full). The label’s roster of rising stars — Alabama rapper Rylo Rodriguez and Detroit newcomer 42 Dugg — is small but making an impact: Last December, Rodriguez’s G.I.H.F. debuted at No. 11 on Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart, while Dugg, who also signed with Yo Gotti’s CMG imprint in 2019, was featured on Lil Baby’s Hot 100 top 10 single “We Paid” in 2020.
Baby’s eye for talent isn’t based on whether the music sounds polished or not — he prides himself on building personal relationships with his artists and judging authenticity before moving forward with them on the business front. “Most of the people that I sign come from my walk of life,” he says. “I got to feel your vibe because I ain’t on no ‘studio rapper’ s–t.”
His early wins as an executive haven’t gone unnoticed. In July, Motown Records agreed to a label partnership with 4PF, giving Baby the freedom to sign, develop and launch the careers of a new generation of creative artists. “I look at him, and I think a lot about JAY-Z and the way Jay put out music on a consistent basis at the beginning of his career,” says Motown Records chairman/CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam. “Seeing where he came from — quiet in the back, but really pulling all the strings and making all the business moves and decisions — there’s a lot of similarities there.”
And much like with JAY-Z, Baby’s business acumen has impressed executives outside the music industry as well, including billionaire and Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin, who recently invited the rapper to perform at his Fourth of July party on Long Island. The two men have built a friendship based on their shared love of music and business, and Baby has taken a special interest in Rubin’s REFORM Alliance initiative, which focuses on criminal justice reform. Co-founders JAY-Z and Meek Mill have landed major victories for the organization, most notably in 2020 when they got California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign into law AB 1950, a bill that will limit adult probation sentence maximums to one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies.
“[Baby] is always asking the right questions and looking for new opportunities to learn and expand his skill set,” says Rubin. “I truly believe that he has the potential to make a meaningful impact on our world — way beyond the music industry — and become a leader for the next generation.”
According to Thomas, Baby’s rhymes about social change resonate because they’re grounded in personal experience. A song like “The Bigger Picture” doesn’t speak about the need for police reform from a removed perspective; in the opening verse, Baby recounts how his own mother was devastated when police told her that her son wasn’t leaving his jail cell. “None of us are trust-fund babies,” says Thomas. “There’s a lot of opportunities out there, but in the Black community, it still is what it is. You have to be from here and understand this culture we come from. And [Baby’s] the real definition of what Atlanta is and what it is to be a Black man making it out.”
Baby’s origins remain his badge of honor, not just in the studio but in the boardroom. “I maintain all the street principles: You got to give respect to get respect,” he says. “My grandma used to tell me, ‘You’re a first-class citizen.’ I know in these rooms they assume for me to be a thug or a rapper. But I’m going in as a first-class citizen.”
“Le Baby! Le Baby!”
In June, Lil Baby was in Paris, hanging out with NBA superstar James Harden during Fashion Week, when paparazzi surrounded the two as they were leaving their hotel. The yells of one particularly enthusiastic reporter became viral gold as a frazzled Baby delivered a half-hearted smile before heading out with Harden.
But the trip wasn’t all lighthearted social media fodder. Baby was arrested while in Paris and taken into police custody on charges of carrying marijuana. (He was released the same day and ordered to pay a fine.) “The whole Paris experience let me know I got to get bigger overseas,” he says matter-of-factly. “Not saying to not go to jail for breaking the law, but for the police to know who I am.”
Parisian police may not have recognized him, but the 14,000-plus fans who attended his concerts during his stay in Europe certainly did. Though he admits to not rehearsing often over the course of the pandemic, Baby received an adrenaline rush after performing overseas in July every night. He’s looking forward to fine-tuning his stage show once he launches the Back Outside Tour with Lil Durk, beginning in September, but he’ll get some practice this summer, as a headliner at the 10th annual Made in America Festival and also as a top-line performer at Rolling Loud in New York and Los Angeles. “I’m going to be better prepared for the tour,” says Baby confidently. “Right now, my goal is to make my show the craziest s–t on Earth. Like Rolling Loud, I’m trying to make my sets crazy. What else would I be doing — vacation?” At Rolling Loud Miami in July, Baby prioritized the 4PF brand, bringing out Rodriguez and 42 Dugg to assist on different tracks.
Meanwhile, he’s also piecing together his as-yet-untitled third solo album, for which he’s making one key change to his previous creative process: writing out his lyrics, after previously freestyling all of them. “I’m in a whole different head space than I was at with My Turn — I’m going to be at a different level every time I drop because I’m at different levels in life,” he says. Though he remains tight-lipped about further details of his forthcoming album, he says his dream collaboration, with André 3000 — whom Baby describes as “a cold motherf–ker” — is in the works. “I talked to somebody who be talking to him, and he’s on it right now. We’re in third-party communications.”
As both his fans and business partners have learned at this point, trusting Baby’s instincts — and his reputation for more than following through on them — is a no-brainer as he prepares for his next chapter. “The thing about Baby is, he’s going to watch, learn, listen, let you speak and pay attention, but he’s also going to do the work,” says Habtemariam. “He’s going to show up and be there.”
Case in point: Last December, in the midst of closing out the biggest year of his career, Lil Baby attended and paid for George Floyd’s daughter Gianna’s seventh birthday party in Atlanta. “He took time out of his life to make sure that my niece had a great birthday party, and he’s still in her life,” says Philonise Floyd. “To me, it’s a beautiful thing.”