Hug life: has rap’s ‘baby’ obsession reached its peak?

Sada Baby, Baby Goth, Lil Baby – exploring the babyfaced gangster and society’s lurch towards infantilism

Mark your calendars, update your Google docs, check it off in your Notes app: 2019 is the year that rap has reached Peak Baby. Over the past few years, hip-hop has seen an influx of artists with the word “baby” in their names. This year’s biggest babies are DaBaby – whose album, Baby on Baby has the track Goin Baby – and Lil Baby, who raps “wah wah wah, bitch I’m the Baby” on his Drake-featuring breakout hit Yes Indeed. Then there is Sada Baby, SahBabii, Baby Soulja, Baby Keem, Baby E and BBG Baby Joe. Female babies include BbyMutha, Baby Goth, Yung Baby Tate and Bali Baby. And don’t forget the “Cash me outside” meme turned quite good rapper Bhad Bhabie and the Putin-bothering Russian star Big Baby Tape.

We officially reached peak baby on 17 July this year, when Lil Baby and DaBaby released a track called – you guessed it – Baby, on which they rap: “Baby hang with four or five killers / Baby got children / Baby probably still drug dealin’”. Can someone report this nursery to Ofsted?

It is important to note, mainly in observance of child-labour laws, that none of these babies are actual infants. Atlanta’s Lil Baby, 24, couldn’t have written a track as good as Drip Too Hard if he was still in nappies, and the lyrics to 18-year-old Baby Keem’s Orange Soda would get him sent to the naughty step for years. Twenty-year-old BBG Baby Joe’s depiction of his home town of Baton Rouge in Letter to Boo would be very different if he’d only experienced the city strapped into a Bugaboo.

It could be argued that after decades of songs about murder, gang violence and rivalries, what rap needs is vulnerability, and the baby trend is a positive step towards this. But then you listen to DaBaby’s Baby Sitter, where he claims: “I’m the type of Baby that’s gon’ fuck the babysitter”. Mate: grow up.

And while baby voice works on, say, Nicki Minaj’s incredible verse on Kanye’s Monster, Yung Baby Tate rapping: “This pussy juicy-juicy / Oh yummy, wanna do me?” in a baby voice on Ashnikko’s Stupid is just creepy. On the song Beckham, as well as drastically misunderstanding David Beckham’s onfield tactics, Tate begs a man to “bend me over like Beckham” with a childish giggle. Earlier this year, Complex magazine renamed Playboi Carti’s high-pitched vocal style, with its half-finished words, “Baby Voice Carti”. Do we really want our rappers rhyming like toddlers?

And why have we reached peak baby now, in 2019? Basically, Will “Ill Will” Lavin, rap journalist and author, says it’s all about evolution. “Rap is obsessed with youth and the idea of the babyfaced gangster; hence, 90s R&B singer, producer and label boss Babyface, and Birdman simply being called Baby when he released his first album.” Essentially, he says, we’ve been heading for peak baby since the 90s. “In the 80s, you had Young MC, then everyone called themselves ‘Young’ or ‘Yung’,” says Lavin. In the 90s, Jay-Z nicknamed himself Young Hova, which, nowadays, would be a bit of a stretch for the almost 50-year-old rapper.

Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne’s That Carter III. Photograph: PR

“In the 90s, Lil’ Kim was an early adopter of the ‘Lil’ trend – Lil’ Bow Wow, Lil’ Romeo, Lil Jon and of course Lil Wayne.” Bow Wow is in fact now just Bow Wow, having decided in 2002 there were “too many Lil’s”, declaring the “lil” thing over. “I changed my name because I’m getting older now and these Lil’ rappers, I’m just kind of getting real irritated by it,” he said. “Drop the Lil’. Forget it. I’m Bow Wow. Besides, I’m growing up, I’m not little any more. [I just decided that] two weeks ago. I really got irritable. It’s all these Lil’ cats, forget it.” Just imagine how vexed he would be in 2019, now that we have Lil Yachty, Lil Nas X, Lil Dicky, Lil Xan, Lil Uzi Vert and, well, everyone else.

Clover Hope, author of an upcoming book about female rappers, agrees. “These trends tend to be cyclical, whether it’s rappers with ‘Lil’ or ‘Young’ in their name, but it also coincides with the general obsession with babydom in internet culture and adults infantilising themselves to be satirical, ie the ‘I’m baby’ meme,” she says. “In DaBaby’s case – and it’s funny to even be saying this seriously – he’s been using the baby theme to bring a sense of absurd humour to rap.”

Although most would rather our childhood pictures remained hidden in a photo album at our mum’s, unsurprisingly, baby rappers love photos of kids on their album covers. For example, Baby E’s Trapper of the Year has a photo of him as a child, while BBG Baby Joe poses with his one-year-old son Kingston on his album cover for B4 It’s All Said and Done. DaBaby’s 2018 mixtape Baby Talk 5 has a cartoon of the artist as some kind of 80s Business Baby, cutting deals on a huge mobile phone, while his Billion Dollar Baby mixtape has a childhood photo of him on the front. But as Lavin points out, that’s more of a rap tradition than a new babywave idea.

“The first baby cover was Nas’s Illmatic from 94, which is a photo of him at seven, but the more iconic image is probably the baby on Biggie’s Ready to Die, which isn’t actually a photo of Biggie. Then you had Common’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid MAAD City in 2012, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same in 2013, and more recently Young Dolph’s King of Memphis, which all feature childhood photos of the artists. The most memorable is probably Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, which is Wayne as a baby, but with his tattoos.” In fact, Baby E’s cover for Trapper of the Year actually pays tribute to his mentor, label boss and sometime collaborator Lil Wayne by using the same inked-up infant trick.

Having gone from “young” to “lil” to “baby”, what’s next for youth-obsessed hip-hop artists? Oh yeah: actual real-life babies running rap. Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, now seven, is the youngest artist ever to appear on the Billboard charts at just 48 hours old (that’s her crying on dad Jay-Z’s track Glory). DJ Khaled’s son Asahd, two, executive produced his dad’s last album and is the CEO of his company, although it’s questionable just how many boardroom decisions he is actually making. And Travis Scott’s daughter with Kylie Jenner, Stormi, 18 months, is credited as an exec producer on his recent Netflix special Look Mom I Can Fly.

After that? Brace yourself for Lil Embryo.


Issy Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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