There are always online debates raging about which four faces belong on the hip-hop Mount Rushmore for any given genre or era. The cover art of Lil Baby’s latest depicts himself occupying all four slots. With just how meteoric his rise has been over the last couple years, from a popularity standpoint, it’s hard to disagree. As an active music listener, however, this reviewer is still struggling to grasp his appeal. Now on what is technically his third studio album – though quite a few other projects were mixed in between – Lil Baby has certainly been upping his game when it comes to some of his feature verses, his recognizable buttery tone smoothly adapting to any beat that he’s thrown on top of. It’s the reason why it’s all the more baffling when his solo projects never have a shred of adventurousness or creativity, Lil Baby content instead to get his Future on and half-heartedly babble a sometimes-rhyming stream of consciousness over the same mundane trap beats we collectively got tired of three or four years ago. While he’s been injecting a little more energy into his voice lately and his latest overlong odyssey isn’t quite as soul-crushing as 2020’s My Turn, it’s still hard to get excited about anything here.
Lil Baby gives listeners a second of hope when opening track “Real Spill” kicks off with a pitched-up Sade sample, suggesting we might hear anything but the standard copy-paste trap instrumentals over the album’s hour-plus runtime. It quickly drops away into an instrumental that certainly has some hard-hitting bass in comparison to the rest of the project, but there’s still something about Lil Baby’s insistence on a melodic, Auto-Tuned flow despite not going for any melodies that heavily grates on me as neighbouring tones flit back and forth throughout extended verses – especially when there’s nothing in the instrumental to distract from it. Another problem that crops up throughout is the lack of structure to Lil Baby’s flows – even on a huge smash hit like “California Breeze.” Falling off beat, extending past bar lengths and rhythms to fit in a couple extra words, and forgoing typical rhyme schemes, it just means there’s nothing memorable or catchy across the entire project. Why “Breeze” blew up is anyone’s guess – the instrumental is incredibly boring, so I’d think it would be for laid-back lyrics about enjoying the sunny days if not for the chillier temperatures outside. “Pop Out” copies another big hit in “Super Gremlin” with a chorus of kids and bringing Nardo Wick, one of the closest artists to Kodak right now, on board. He does a great job – it’s just on an abruptly switched beat while Baby still falters in his own wheelhouse. There’s yet another awkward beat switch on the track “Perfect Timing,” fading in and out of more introspective acoustics.
Tracks like “Stand On It” and “Heyy” find Baby continuing to sabotage himself. The quicker piano melodies and old-school West Coast-sounding synths in the beat of the former make for more of an interesting palate, but Lil Baby awkwardly explaining his punchlines is a laughable moment, while “Heyy” has one of the hardest beats here, juxtaposed with one of Baby’s laziest, off-beat performances and a truly annoying chorus. It just makes what should be a great beat overwhelming, because it sounds like there’s something else going on distracting from it, rather than working with it. Elsewhere, things that are usually distractions (in a good way) fade into the background – Young Thug, often one of the most noticeable rappers, has been barely discernable from his collaborators in his most recent string of features, and “Never Hating” is no exception. An orchestral-sounding synth line that distinguishes the beat is removed as soon as Lil Baby starts rapping, like he’s afraid of experimentation. “In A Minute” is another huge single in the opening half that doesn’t feel like one, with extended stretches of no percussion and a track that never builds or changes, while “Waterfall Flow” bizarrely features a sizzling sound resembling a cicada buzz going off indiscriminately in the background. Baby’s flow resembles a waterfall in that it rapidly goes off a cliff, falling chaotically every which way. Two of the better songs in the first half are “Forever,” featuring an airy chorus from Fridayy that brings us out of the monotony, and “Not Finished,” the most energetic track on the project where Baby’s flows finally begin to resemble his show-stealing features over an engaging and ghostly synth line.
The patterns really start to wear thin by the time you get past the album’s halfway mark. There’s little to say about tracks like “Everything” and “Danger” – that haven’t already been said – except for the fact that they both have the same kind of cheap-sounding, MIDI loop piano-trap beat, of which there are a couple too many on the project. Tracks like “Priority” and “Double Down” aren’t doing much but reiterating ideas that have already been done slightly better in the earlier goings – except for a couple of striking lyrics about the inherent violence in rap culture on the latter. I wish that Baby showed this side of himself more, as he’s proven that he has it in his with tracks like “The Bigger Picture.”
“From Now On” finds the two laziest rappers of 2022 linking up: Future drops a verse over a muddy, droning buzz of an instrumental, while you can barely make out a word that Lil Baby says, but “Cost To Be Alive” stands out due to a Kanye-esque sample flip of Billie Holiday’s “My Man” that recontextualizes her words. Still, Lil Baby does himself no favours on top, while guest star Rylo Rodriguez is essentially Lil Baby with a deeper voice, falling into the same tendencies. By the time we get to the final run of tracks, my eyes just start glazing over waiting for it to end – the only things that perk the ears up are a horribly layered and repetitive chorus from Jeremih on “Stop Playin” and a surprisingly solid feature from Pooh Shiesty on “Shiest Talk” before things close out with “Russian Roulette.” It’s a decent closer as Baby drops some deeper lyrics over a catchy acoustic loop, but you have to get through so much filler to get there.
While he’s certainly improving – though at a snail’s pace – Lil Baby’s music is still to be relegated to the background unless he starts making some more adventurous decisions with his beat selection and flows. If that doesn’t happen, I’d love to see him on a collaboration project with a bigger former collaborator that can bring the best out of him, like a J. Cole. For now, the rap Mount Rushmore is still up for grabs.
Favourite Tracks: Not Finished, Cost To Be Alive, Stand On It
Least Favourite Track: Stop Playin