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Lil Baby Is as Relentlessly Focused as Ever on ‘It’s Only Me’

Lil Baby is a reliably astute emcee — nimble at rapping and structurally fluid, but carrying enough bark to devour listeners with tales of fast cars, childhood mischief, and rebellious upward mobility. On 2020’s My Turn, the Atlanta rapper was able to go from Young Thug reinterpreter to independent artist in his own right. Songs like “We Paid” and “Emotionally Scarred” showed off a dexterity, pristine songwriting, and an attitude fit for a monarch who’d just thrown a successful violent coup. On It’s Only Me, his 10th release since 2017, he sticks with an ever-working formula, with similar success. Why do we keep streaming Baby records that are as long as Succession episodes? Because he’s a familiar superstar who always delivers. 

As a rapper, Lil Baby isn’t as confrontationally mutable as other Atlanta stalwarts. If Young Thug’s wild statements and outfits allow people of every identity to see themselves in him, Baby is a single-minded, ultra-focused careerist. He’s observant, lean, and emotionally acute, with a crystalline voice that’s one of the best of this generation. That intensity comes through in every song. See “Pop Out” where he raps, “You the type of guy that want for “I”, you oh so selfish/I’m the type guy ready to die for this if it’s gon’ prevail for us.” He’s made of steel.  

As always, his trick is how fast he delivers his verses. Few opening bars are as blunt and crisp as the one on “Not Finished”: “She got that WAP/And the way that she use that saliva with top.” Few opening lines are as ominous as the one he offers on the EST Gee-assisted “Back and Forth”: “It’s like 60 girls, just me and gang, and no one got they phone.” Such dexterity means that moments of lyrical depth hit especially hard; despite its attempt to create a hook out of a greeting, “Heyy” is full of resonant survivor’s guilt: “Youngins out here wildin’ with no guidance/All they care about is who they kill/I was tryna keep that shit in order.” 

Despite its 23-song tracklist, It’s Only Me rolls as freely as a bowling ball headed for a strike. “Perfect Timing” shows off Baby’s most timeless attribute, his ability to rap and sing syrupy melodies, turning a monologue to an old lover into a sneaky boast: “You could’ve just brushed that off, you rather be dramatic/765 McLaren, this ain’t the one they got/Brabus truck at least half a ticket, I got it in the projects/If anything I tried to help you, I ain’t never tried to knock ya.” He even overcomes clumsy production. “In a Minute” samples Ellie Goulding’s “Don’t Say a Word,” the same song that Drake sampled on “Pound Cake.” But rather than sidestep the Drake comparison, he leans into it with the same kind of tart, punchy verses you get from Drake at his best, delivered with just enough personality that it doesn’t come off sounding like a carbon copy. 

It’s Only Me does have some samey moments. “Double Down” double downs on predictable self-mythologizing, and “Stop Playin” slips into the kind of mediocrity that’s common in the streaming era. But most of the time, Baby is in prime form here — technical enough to earn his hip-hop cred, and stylistic enough to keep the uncommon kids from feeling like he’s common. When he’s at his best, it’s best to let him gobble you whole.

Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that we got rid of the stars on our reviews. If you’re an engaged music fan in 2022, your opinion isn’t going to be defined by some random number. We’ll tell you right away (with some new labels) when a new album is a must-hear or, in rarer cases, an instant classic. After that, our critics will help you make up your own damn mind.

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