Album Review: Snapping Off the Rip with DaBaby
Charlotte rapper DaBaby has released KIRK, his first project since exploding into the mainstream in March, and he is hell-bent on keeping his win streak alive.
Written and illustrated by Mark Yoder
To say that 2019 has been a big year for Charlotte rapper DaBaby would be a gross understatement. This year marked the release of his breakout project Baby on Baby, which contained his first hit song “Suge,” and a seemingly never-ending string of features with almost all of the hottest voices in hip hop such as Post Malone, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Chance the Rapper, and Megan Thee Stallion, to name a few. DaBaby has propelled himself to the heights of stardom and has set himself apart in a genre that is saturated with artists on the cusp of reaching the mainstream with his combination of absurd and clever bars, brute force deliveries, and undeniable charisma on and off the mic. He seems to always have a smile on his face, proudly showing off his VVS diamond grill and making his pure enjoyment of his newfound fame clear to see.
There is also a distinctive level of straightforwardness that runs through DaBaby’s music. He keeps his songs under three minutes in length and his projects at a tight play time as well, usually with only about 10-13 songs running at about 30 minutes or less overall. This is a refreshing choice of brevity in a streaming ecosystem where many rappers end up releasing massively bloated projects in hopes that it will increase their odds of getting a hit.
Another one of DaBaby’s trademark characteristics that goes hand in hand with his to-the-point nature is his tendency to instantly begin rapping as soon as the beat starts. Most rappers tend to wait for the beat to build and a producer tag to play before they jump into their verse, but on most DaBaby tracks, his staccato voice smashes through your speakers like the Kool-Aid Man as soon as you hit play. On his verses, he treats the beat like a punching bag, using every second of time to get his points across. But now, with his meteoric rise to the top, some see DaBaby as less of an underground hero to root for and more as a mainstream target to scrutinize. KIRK, his first full-length album release since blowing up, will be an important step for DaBaby to dispel the notion that he is simply a flash in the pan.
The first thing to take note of about KIRK is the cover art, which features an infant DaBaby sitting in his father’s lap. The cover references an important tradition in rap music of using baby photos as the cover of an album, but it also acts as a tribute to his father who passed away at the same time that his song “Suge” was soaring on the Billboard charts. DaBaby described this moment as experiencing his “biggest loss and my biggest win at the same time.” The first track, “INTRO,” sees DaBaby telling this heart-wrenching and deeply personal story over a simple and soulful beat. All of this is pretty uncharacteristic for DaBaby, who usually raps behind a bullet-proof persona, never revealing too much about his personal life. But, with his first track, he successfully shows his vulnerabilities and reveals more of his emotional layers as an artist.
But the album does not linger on this emotion for too long, transitioning into the next couple of tracks, “OFF THE RIP,” “BOP,” and “VIBEZ,” that all stick pretty closely to the formula that netted DaBaby his most successful songs: a straightforward beat, punchy deliveries, and a healthy serving of playful wordplay. The songs do all work to an extent, but feel a bit like slightly worse versions of great tracks on Baby on Baby.
After these four songs, the album gets into its impressive list of features, and each artist has to work to compliment DaBaby’s style. However, their ability to do this is vastly different from artist to artist. On the chorus for the song “POP STAR,” DaBaby responds to criticism that he has sold out by rapping, “They prolly tell you I went pop / Until a n**** play with me and he get popped.” Kevin Gates contributes a feature to this song and is clearly attempting to match DaBaby’s energy, but it comes out somewhat forced, as if he might be trying a little too hard.
The next tracks “GOSPEL” and “iPHONE” are weak points on the album, where it is clear that DaBaby is experimenting with different sounds than he typically works with, but unfortunately it doesn’t provide a very fruitful outcome. These songs feature some passable autotune crooning from DaBaby, but in 2019 when rap-singing is a dime a dozen, these songs feel disappointingly generic. And Chance the Rapper’s squeaky voice joyfully rapping on “GOSPEL” about shoelaces and how he doesn’t like fans in his face feels starkly out of place on the album. Nicki Minaj graciously teams up with DaBaby on the song “iPHONE”. This collaboration leads to a mediocre result where DaBaby and Nicki both sing many corny lines complaining about their relationships and stressing the necessity of always keeping a side piece on deck.
But after these songs, the album returns to more familiar territory. DaBaby and Lil Baby reunite once again alongside Moneybagg Yo on the cold-blooded track “TOES.” There is good synergy between these three artists as they go back and forth trading braggadocious bars. The song also features minimal production from Kenny Beats and a whistling sample that makes the whole song feel like a western stand off at high noon, a feeling that DaBaby references with the line “Better not pull up with no knife / 'Cause I bring guns to fights (Boom).” The track “REALLY” ends up being the best banger on the project, featuring a driving beat and all of the elements that have been present in the best DaBaby songs, along with an off-kilter and aggressive feature from long-time collaborator Stunna 4 Vegas.
Whether you like him or not, DaBaby is here to stay. The amount of momentum that he has created for himself in 2019 alone is astounding, and with his album KIRK, he shows once again that he is only getting started. DaBaby experiments with both sound and content on this album and ends up creating some of his best moments, like his vulnerable bars on “INTRO,” as well as some of his worst moments, like the muddled and boring “GOSPEL.” Whether it is successful or not, it is still promising to see DaBaby recognize the importance that evolving his music has in determining his longevity as an artist.