Among the many oddities of a tumultuous, pandemic-addled year in music in 2020, the most surprising might have been that Taylor Swift’s massive “Folklore” was surpassed in consumption by the end of the year by an even more massive album from a still up-and-coming Atlanta rapper. Up until the release of “My Turn,” Lil Baby had still been defined, as with so many of his ATL contemporaries, as some variation of “Young Thug clone.” But the record, boosted by its deluxe release to become the most consumed album of the year, chugged along into a sleeper hit that shot him into the hip-hop stratosphere.
It is this rise over the last couple years that undergirds the arrival of his new record, “It’s Only Me,” and what also perhaps explains the mentality behind an often phoned-in slog of a work. The album, Baby’s third studio effort, largely solidifies what was perhaps even more unexpected about his superstardom: the fact that it was built on a sound that, on the star-making “My Turn,” was largely flavorless and inert when taken in its full dosage. Lil Baby rose to the top ranks with a somewhat distinct voice — a smooth, hoarse tone that often sounds effortless on his sprinting flows — but it was typically laid across shamelessly copy-and-paste trap production.
Much is the same with the new effort. “It’s Only Me” opens with the smoky croons of a chipmunk soul sample on “Real Spill” that briefly seems to promise something newly earnest or ambitious. The moment is short-lived, as a nameless set of hi-hats and lifeless 808s take the wheel, and the typical Baby sound washes over. Despite the story that could have been told about the dizzying turn that the last couple years undoubtedly have been, Baby has nothing compelling to say about his life here. On the opening track, the most vivid he gets comes down to clunky bars about his newfound A-list status: “Got my name from the ghetto / But I’m bigger now / I can go to dinner with Corey Gamble and Miss Jenner now.”
It’s a shame considering the flashes of earnestness that Baby has shown, most notably on “The Bigger Picture,” an affecting protest anthem of sorts in summer 2020 that was buoyed most of all by its emotional intimacy. “Russian Roulette,” the album’s new final song, comes closest to striking a reflective tone and offering anything close to a vivid pull, but by then the record is over.
Of course, there is no requirement to tread in the direction of solemn, future-classic material, but “It’s Only Me” provides nothing interesting or particularly catchy as a record of grinding bangers either. The lead single, “Heyy,” one of the few tracks with an immediately recognizable chorus, is built around a deeply lazy hook, with flat production that’s antithetical to Baby’s greatest strength. He is best when he lets his flow loose — his magnetism coming from his ability to sound lackadaisical while outrunning the beat.
This is clearest on standouts like “Never Finished,” a track that immediately allows Baby to actually let loose on his flow, his bars coasting against the jittery keys of the beat. Or on “Pop Out,” the abrupt beat-switch to a menacing sound, both in production and in Nardo Wick’s strong feature, injecting a sharp energy that’s absent from most of the record. Baby’s skyrocketing popularity has notably been supplemented by his standout features with marquee names like Drake (“Wants and Needs”) and J. Cole (“Pride is the Devil”), where his shine suddenly comes into clarity on thankfully different beats that allows his raps to float, lock into some creative groove, or simply find momentum.
But here, his usual sonic fare mutes Baby into background noise — ambient trap that lasts for 23 songs. The vast majority of tracks come in under three minutes, yet it’d be wrong to give credit to Baby for not overstaying his welcome on these songs when the record, aside from a predictable variation of keys or strings that introduce each new track, practically blurs into one indistinguishable song. Here’s an exercise: to get a clear sense of the bloated laziness of the record, play the first couple seconds of these tracks in order: “Stand On It,” “Not Finished,” “Everything,” “Top Priority,” and “Danger.”
Baby’s evasion of anything varied is perhaps not a creative flaw as much as it is entirely part of the plan: cookie-cutter trap production, a halfway decent flow, and a bloated track list will equate to an album on loop that ultimately streams gold or platinum. It is a formula that, particularly when enacted by arguably the hottest rapper in music, is indicative of the creative dead-end that the Atlanta sound, which is to say modern hip-hop writ large, has hit. (It’s telling that, for better or worse, Drake, single-handedly the most dominant tastemaker in hip-hop, finally took a left turn into R&B with this summer’s “Honestly, Nevermind.”)
The accompanying album art to “It’s Only Me” is a Mount Rushmore of sorts, shrouded in a hazy sepia storm, each head bearing Lil Baby’s face. It’s a bit of chutzpah that is almost fair; Drake and Kendrick aside, he is sitting atop the rap charts, leading the charge of his generation. But there’s another way to read the title: It’s just this that we’re left with.
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