The Remarkable Rise of Lil Baby

By Charles Holmes

Lil Baby has four pockets stuffed with cash, and he’d like to keep it that way. The 25-year-old rapper has spent the past 15 minutes teaching me to play cee-lo, a dice game that helped make him famous in certain Atlanta circles long before he reached legal drinking age. Outside, torrential rain falls on a collection of cars worth many, many mortgages.

Inside the headquarters of Quality Control, the most successful hip-hop label currently operating in Atlanta and home to Migos, City Girls, and Lil Yachty, three green dice bounce against the wooden floor. Baby, born Dominique Jones, is a patient and methodical teacher, calmly answering my inane questions about throwing technique. Every time he throws the dice he snaps his fingers, trying to will the numbers to his cause. “The object of the game is to get two of these [dice] the same,” Baby says. For example, the young rapper rolls a 4-4-2 and explains that his score would be two. There are additional rules: 4-5-6 is an automatic win, so is rolling two matching numbers and one 6; 1-2-3 is an automatic loss.

It’s complicated, but under Baby’s tutelage I — eventually — win $200, and reach for the pair of hundreds on the floor. That’s when Baby breaks into a grin. “Guess what?” he says. “They got to hit the wall.”

“I told you,” he says with a smirk. I maintain that he never told me, and look to his crew for support that never comes. Baby offers no leeway.

“You got to just keep shooting,” he says.

Within a couple of seconds, all of the money returns to Baby’s hands. Satisfied, he packs the dice up while finishing a blunt the size of Kawhi Leonard’s middle finger. As ashes hit the floor, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, the founder and COO of Quality Control, appears, as if endowed with a sixth sense for moments when Baby might say something that will land him in trouble. Baby is detailing a night when acquaintances chipped in money in hopes of seeing one of his winning streaks up close, the type that would leave everyone chasing him across the city to win their cash back. To this day, he says, he still hasn’t paid certain parties back from the nights when his hot hand went cold. It’s not because he doesn’t have the funds to give, he assures the room. It’s merely the principle of the matter.

“I don’t care if I owe you — in my head, I’m running off anyway,” Baby says, laughing. “I ain’t got no intention of paying them, for real. Like, I still owe niggas right now.”

“Are you taping this right now?” Coach K asks me.

“Yeah,” I say.

“He can tape that — I don’t give a damn,” Baby shoots back.

Lil Baby Cover

Lil Baby photographed by Diwang Valdez in Atlanta on June 28th, at the burned-down Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot by a police officer. Grooming by Nate Piston. Styling by Jason Rembert. Jacket by Celine. T-shirt by Moncler. Jeans by Ksubi. Belt by Louis Vuitton. Shoes by Nike. Glasses by Givenchy. Diwang Valdez for Rolling Stone

Lil Baby is, by many metrics, the most popular rapper in the world right now. He has the most-streamed album in the country this year, and even with projects from rappers like Drake or pop stars like the Weeknd to contend with, it’s not really close. Before he was a rapper, Baby was a constant presence in the orbit of QC. When Migos, Rich the Kid, Skippa Da Flippa, and Lil Duke were cutting their teeth in the label’s studio, he was right there, not rapping. A weed dealer with a prodigious reputation, Baby would wait for rappers to return from shows flush with cash that he might take from them, one way or another.

“They was getting money, but goddamn,” Baby says, still incredulous. “They probably get like 30 grand a show, but they’re doing three, four shows, so they come back with 50, 60, and I might win the whole 50.”

It was Coach K who noticed something in a 17-year-old Baby the young dealer had yet to see in himself. K is the power broker behind the millennium’s first cadre of Atlanta legends (Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane) and those shaping the city’s future (Migos, Lil Yachty). With a salt-and-pepper beard and slow gait, he’s the calm at the center of Quality Control’s constant hurricane. In Baby, he saw someone with the voice, style, and respect required for success in Atlanta rap’s ecosystem.

“I remember one day, we was standing outside the studio,” Coach K says. “I’ll never forget this. He had on all white, and I was just like, ‘Baby, man, why don’t you rap? Like, you got the swag, you got the lingo, you get respect around the city from the east side to the west side to the south side. Why don’t you rap?’ He used to be like, ‘Coach, I’m a street nigga.’ He used to laugh at me.”

Rap is a genre built on embellishment. It inspires correctional officers with delusions of grandeur to become faux kingpins and multicolored internet trolls to envision themselves as the most notorious gang member in America. But Baby’s life story was already interesting. He didn’t need hyperbole.

Read the full article at The Rolling Stone.

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