Lil Baby’s been navigating chaos for much of his life, so when he explains the trajectory of his year—the multiplatinum success that gave way to a litany of tragedies—his tone remains frank and calm. It’s late July when we speak, only two weeks since his friend and collaborator Lil Marlo was shot and killed while driving along Interstate 285, west of downtown Atlanta. Baby says his death still doesn’t seem real. “We’d go a week or two without talking,” he says. “It just feels like he’s somewhere handling his business.” Then, the same day as Marlo’s funeral, another friend died, this time of COVID-19. “That shit put me in a trance,” Baby says. “I’ve been trying to run from that situation.” A final blow came the day before our interview, when a third friend was sent back to jail.
We’re in Atlanta’s Berkeley Park neighborhood, at the studio of Quality Control Records, the label that is also home to Lil Yachty, City Girls, and Migos, the Lawrenceville, Georgia, trio whose world Baby inhabited as a weed dealer long before he started rapping. For a music studio, it’s eerily quiet. Baby, 25, wears a white tee, green skinny jeans, and an Audemars Piguet watch, having discarded his collection of diamond-encrusted chains he donned for the photo session, including an oversized one that read “BABY.” “People might not know who I am,” he had joked back at the shoot, looking in a mirror as he flashed a wry smile.
Born Dominique Jones, Baby grew up with his mother, a post office worker, and two sisters in West End, a historically Black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, where, even as a kid, he was “always in some little shit.” A savvy, popular teenager, he’d hang in the streets with older guys, eventually dropping out of Booker T. Washington High School (also attended by Martin Luther King Jr. and Baby’s friend Young Thug) in the ninth grade. One institution that remained in his life was the church—growing up, he always went with his great-grandmother. “Even once I got in the streets and started hustling, one of my big homies, he’d go to church every Sunday,” he says. “So since I was about 16, I’ve been going to church with him.” Although his recent schedule and the pandemic have halted his in-person worship, Baby says, he remains a man of faith. As he puts it, “I’m real God-fearing.”
In 2014, Baby was given a two-year prison sentence on drug and weapons charges. In the time he was locked away, Atlanta underwent massive changes—the expansion of the BeltLine, a railway corridor turned trail, transformed West End—and when Baby was released, he stepped into a different neighborhood. Back home he grew nostalgic, sometimes poring over old photos of the city. “I see the way shit looked back then in Atlanta and how it is now,” he says. “It’s different from how it was when I was growing up.” He thought in particular about the West End Mall, home to his favorite hot-wings chain, American Deli, where he used to order lemon-pepper wings so often he started calling a woman who worked there Mama. But ever the pragmatist, he also grew intrigued by the opportunities afforded by the changing real estate market. Recently he invested in a $400 million redevelopment of the dilapidated mall, which is slated to include retail and office space, as well as condos.
In Atlanta, where rappers are helping to finance redevelopment projects, the city’s hip-hop royalty has become a galvanizing political force. After the murder of George Floyd, when the city felt like it was about to boil over, it was Killer Mike and T.I. who stepped in to try to help quell the tension and forestall the looting, and Lil Baby himself felt the urge to be involved, releasing a track, “The Bigger Picture,” marked by heartfelt, searing lyrics. The song advocated swift action more than it did any specific political message—“You can’t fight fire with fire, I know, but at least we can turn up the flames some,” he rapped—but it took on a new meaning less than 24 hours after its release when another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by police at a Wendy’s not far from where Baby grew up. “The Bigger Picture” wasn’t calling for actual flames, but in the aftermath of Brooks’s death, the Wendy’s was set on fire and protesters occupied the lot for more than three weeks. Amid the protests, the single became an anthem and the city turned to its new star. Baby wrote on Instagram that he planned to work with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on police reform, only to quickly delete the post. “The more I’m seeing what’s up with all that shit, the more I’m like, ‘Let me back up off politics,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to be no Malcolm X or Martin Luther [King].… I stuck my nose in it. I’m good on that.”
When it comes to raising his voice politically, Baby has reason to move carefully. In July he found himself in the midst of a hotly contested race for Atlanta district attorney when the long-serving incumbent, Paul Howard—the D.A. who prosecuted Baby and sent him to prison in 2014—announced on Facebook and Twitter that Baby had endorsed him. Introduced by a mutual acquaintance, the two did meet and had what Baby considers a much needed conversation about criminal-justice reform. “If I can sit at a table and really talk to you like I’m human, versus the politics and you in that courtroom, you really might come to reality versus you sending n-ggas goddamn down the road for 500 years,” he says. But Baby says he did not, in fact, endorse Howard. “Paul Howard sent me to prison,” he says. On August 11, Howard was trounced in a primary runoff—one more wrinkle in Baby’s glorious, strange, sad year.
Leaning back in his chair, he stares ahead at a blank wall and recalls the night in the studio three years ago when he laid down his first track. Unsatisfied, he’d resigned himself to the notion that maybe rap just wasn’t for him. But Lil Marlo persuaded him to go back to the studio. Baby can still hear his friend’s voice: “He like, ‘Bruh, I’m telling you, bruh, we need to rap. Bruh, I’m telling you, the city gon’ be behind us.’ ” With each remembered word, Baby’s recounting becomes more energetic. “We stay on the phone for maybe two hours,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Fuck it, bruh, tonight we going in.’ ”