TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Over the past two years, the rapper known as DaBaby has become one of the most popular artists in hip-hop. Known for his high-speed rapping and wide grin, DaBaby has become a frequent guest on other rap stars' songs. His own videos have parodied the exaggerated machismo of other male rappers. His new album, his second in 2019, is called "Kirk." Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OFF THE RIP")
DABABY: (Rapping) Straight off the rip. You know I don't wait for the drop. I go out to eat with my kids and my momma, you know I ain't dating no thot (ph). Believe what you see, [expletive]. I can't name a rapper that's out here and breathing that's [expletive] with me, [expletive]. I'm taking they [expletive], Forces, Adidas pants and a tee, [expletive]. They like, how? That don't even match.
UNIDENTIFIED BABY: (Unintelligible).
DABABY: OK. Hold on. Take my phone, baby. Let's go.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Few rappers in 2019 have been as entertaining to listen to as DaBaby, whose new album "Kirk" is one of the year's best hip-hop collections. Born Jonathan Kirk, DaBaby is from Charlotte, N.C. At the age of 27, he's prolific. "Kirk" is actually his second album this year. The first, released in April and called "Baby On Baby," yielded this big hit single called "Suge," a little ditty that bounces with energy as DaBaby raps about his success as a businessman.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Pooh, you a fool for this one. Oh, lord, Jetson made another one.
DABABY: (Rapping) Pack in the mail, it's gone. She like how I smell, cologne. I just signed a deal, I'm on. Yeah, yeah. I go where I want. I'm good. Play if you want, let's do it. I'm a young CEO, Suge. Yeah, yeah.
TUCKER: In the video for "Suge," DaBaby plays a mailman doing a ridiculously bad job of delivering the mail. He displays a flair for slapstick comedy in keeping with the sense of humor that first got him some mainstream attention. In 2017, he showed up at that year's South by Southwest music festival roaming the grounds wearing only an adult diaper. He had just recently, and I would say wisely, changed his stage name, which had been Baby Jesus.
The newly christened DaBaby soon proved himself irresistible. His rapid wordflow (ph) and springy rhythms attracted attention. And soon he was being invited to perform guest versus on other rappers' records, including those of Chance The Rapper, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion. Numerous star rappers return the favor on this album, chiming in on various tracks. Listen to the way DaBaby sets up a guest verse for Chance The Rapper on the track called "Gospel."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOSPEL")
DABABY: (Singing) Right here sound like some gospel. I lost my daddy the same week that they lost Nipsey. Ain't got no love left in my heart, my [expletive] be empty. I'm ready to fire on all my opps (ph). Let a [expletive] tempt me. And the day I die, bet lil Jon be going down in history.
YK OSIRIS: (Singing) 'Cause I've been solo, rocking Dolo. I've been stunting. No, [expletive], it's a no-go. I don't want you.
DABABY: (Singing) And everybody wondering why he come around and don't say nothing.
YK OSIRIS: (Singing) 'Cause it's been so long. It's been so long. I came from nothing.
CHANCE THE RAPPER: (Singing) Chance The Rapper, yeah. Put yourself in my shoes, like I abandoned the race, and you ran in my place. Shoes too big, but they use hair strands as a lace, and they break. When it's hot outside, you don't want fans in your face. But you might want a fan in your face when your man got a heat and the hand in the waistband.
TUCKER: While most of DaBaby's videos emphasize his wide smile, there are undercurrents of seriousness in his music. At various points here, he talks about how hard he's worked to be able to display that smile. And the first cut on "Kirk," called "Intro," memorializes his late father, whom he says died just as he was becoming popular.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTRO")
DABABY: (Singing) Thinking about my grandmama and [expletive]. I got the No. 1 record. They acknowledged the jit (ph). They going crazy when they play it, head bobbing and [expletive]. And I'm just somewhere [expletive] up thinking about my father and [expletive]. They found him dead a couple days before I started the tour. Same day I flew back to the city from Miami, I was out there with the family, just looking at my daughter, thinking to myself, like, damn, my baby look just like my daddy. Same time I got the news, I went No. 1 - that's [expletive] up. That [expletive] there was confusing a little bit.
(Rapping) You know I flew in with the stick. OK, like, let me know what's up before I lose it in this [expletive]. And everybody trying to talk. I ain't trying to talk; I'm trying to click. I'm trying to send somebody with him. Somebody let me know what's happening. My last name K, I, R, K - Kirk. You know how I rock behind my daddy. You know I never gave a [expletive] about the world, just about my family. How the [expletive] I make it to the top same day I lost the [expletive] that had me? How a [expletive] perform on BET and a year ago couldn't afford a sandwich?
(Rapping) I had to move in with TG when I went broke moving out to Cali. What you know about smiling every day for all your fans, acting like you happy? I spent a hundred thousand laying my daddy to rest, but I ain't bragging. I got some questions I'm going to die about respect if I don't get answers. My mama stood up in that chair, took it like a G when she had cancer. My brother be thinking that we don't love him and let him struggle like we ain't family, like I won't give up all I got to see you happy, [expletive]. We shocked the world...
TUCKER: In the often hypermasculine context of hip-hop, showing a sense of humor can be interpreted as being weak, but this is a label DaBaby has thus far avoided. To judge from his videos, he's not the tallest fellow, but he's got a heavily muscled frame and a dashing handsomeness that lend conviction to his boasting about romance and sex. The fact that he's not afraid to be goofy also works in his favor. Fans like an occasional good laugh in the midst of other artists' grim raps about hard times. When you combine it with unusual instrumentation and decorating a vehement beat, his music can seem irresistible. As he himself says on the track called "Bop," he's unorthodox.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOP")
DABABY: (Rapping) I'm unorthodox than a [expletive]. Hey, when you going to switch the flow? I thought you'd never ask. [Expletive] ain't [expletive] with me and ain't about what the [expletive] they be rapping about with they little scary [expletive] - ha. But to each his own, [expletive]. If you like it, I love it, no biggie - no big. That boy say he get money. Oh, really? How much they just cut you a check for? A milli (ph).
(Rapping) I'm going back to Cali, like Biggie - go back. About to go get a pound just to smoke - I smoke. They told me to come work on my album. I'm trying to go find out the price on a boat - OK. My little [expletive] act like Megan Thee Stallion; she ghetto and nasty. She driving the boat - drive the boat. All this [expletive] that they making be boring. Play me something to bop while I ride with the pole. Here you go - ha, OK. I needed some [expletive] with some bop in it - let's go.
(Rapping) I flew past the whip with that blunt in my mouth. Watch the swerving; that whip had a cop in it - woo. My [expletive] got good [expletive], fly her across the country. I finish the show, and I hop in it. I got me a milli. I did it legitly (ph). I'm still with the [expletive]. I'm a hot [expletive] - I'm hot.
TUCKER: Right now, more and more people are discovering the pleasures of DaBaby's Southern-style rapid-fire rapping, the way he begins almost every song with an urgent need to start talking even before the music begins. He blasts through "Kirk's" 13 tracks in under 35 minutes, being simultaneously concise and chatty. He's a fast talker, but he's not a hustler or a fraud; he's the real thing.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed DaBaby's new album, called "Kirk." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book by journalist Susannah Cahalan about the indistinct boundary between diseases of the body and the brain. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "THE GREAT PRETENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.