“Everyone in the world wants to be a rapper,” declares DaBaby, his set of $20,000 diamond teeth widening into a Cheshire cat grin. The North Carolina native is a walking advert for his chosen career path. Equally as dazzling as his grillz are the super-sized rings weighing down his fingers. They’re the result of a million-dollar spree at Johnny Dang, the Texas jewellers responsible for lining the mouths of everyone from Travis Scott to Olympic champion swimmer Ryan Lochte.
The 27-year-old (born Jonathan Lyndale Kirk) is in London for the first time. But it’s not all the five-star hotel flexing his Instagram would have you believe. DaBaby’s eyeing this as a business trip. He’s paid visits to the YouTube and Spotify offices (“I’ve been networking”), and blames his lateness for our shoot on drinking the “wrong type” of Hennessey during an appearance on BBC 1Xtra last night. “That cheap shit will fuck you up!”
DaBaby’s breakout hit Suge has had hundreds of millions of YouTube views and Spotify streams. His Insta following is almost four million. He’s considered the breakout rapper of 2019, but he’s been grinding for a while, dropping his first mixtape under the name Baby Jesus in 2015. Having recently signed a deal with Interscope, his major label debut, Baby On Baby, arrived in March, with Suge catching fire thanks to DaBaby’s husky tone emitting tight, precise triplet flows.
He’s also developed a distinctive persona, a blend of machismo, intense energy and surreal humour. When he arrives for The Face shoot, DaBaby is wearing a neon Stone Island sweatsuit and bright blue cowboy hat. He’s always “on”, too, turning up surrounded by a camera crew, Reel Goats, who follow him everywhere. He introduces the director, James Rico, as the “master goat. Call him Billy”.
Reel Goats are the brains behind eccentric videos such as the one for Baby Sitter. Featuring Migos rapper Offset, it’s halfway between Step Brothers and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They speak to the rapper’s visual tastes, which recall the era of MTV TRL and the golden age of absurdist music videos by the likes of Ludacris and Eminem. In Suge he riffs on the line “pack in the mail, it’s gone” to act out the part of a crooked postman, drop-kicking parcels and pissing on a guy’s porch.
In June, DaBaby rolled out a memorable performance of Suge at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in Los Angeles. Sporting a Janet Jackson face mic and flanked by dancers dressed as inflatable pink infants, he strutted through the crowd in a muscle suit and red rollneck, a bold homage to Death Row Records’ fearsome (and incarcerated) CEO Suge Knight. As he left the ceremony in LA that night, he learned that the track had gone platinum. “They had a plaque waiting for me,” he grins of the sales discs traditionally presented to big-selling artists.
Not unlike Knight, DaBaby has had his share of legal issues. Last year he was involved in an altercation in a North Carolina Walmart, which led to the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old man. DaBaby took to social media to claim that he was with his two toddlers and their mother, and that he had no choice but to act in self-defence. He was found guilty of carrying a concealed weapon, but prosecutors chose not to pursue any other charges.
More recently, in May 2019 a video surfaced of fellow North Carolina rapper Cam Coldheart, who’d been feuding with DaBaby on social media, approaching and taunting DaBaby at a Louis Vuitton store in a mall in Charlotte, NC. A follow-up video with the caption “when bullying Baby on the internet goes wrong” depicted Coldheart on the floor with a bloodied nose and his trousers around his ankles.
“You gotta bring it back to the music, right back to the business,” a defiant DaBaby says, smiling, when I mention this. “Make everything work out in a lucrative way.” And he means it quite literally: DaBaby turned the incident into a merch line, selling T-shirts with a cartoon depiction of the events and a shop assistant saying: “Sir, your belt!”
He’s always been this fly, albeit with a bit less argy-bargy involved. In his early days, DaBaby’s team would employ guerrilla marketing tactics like slapping stickers on real estate signs and holding up the giant baby images to promote his work. At SXSW in 2017, he walked around wearing only a nappy. “I can put on a diaper and they girlfriend still listens to my music,” he told The Breakfast Club radio show, shrugging off the ridicule he received. You might say his tactics are divisive, but in the attention economy that is the current music business, there’s no doubt that DaBaby is something of a marketing genius.
It’s not just the PR stunts that have got him this far. DaBaby has a robust, agile rapping style and a preference for hard-as-nails, no-nonsense beats. In an era dominated commercially by melodically-driven, Auto-Tuned rappers, his sound stands out.
You could compare his career trajectory to that of Megan Thee Stallion, the Houston rapper who’s stormed through 2019 thanks to a combo of technical ability and her Hot Girl Summer concept going viral. DaBaby showed up to deliver a raunchy guest verse on her recent album Fever, and both caught a buzz with their verses for XXL magazine’s Freshman freestyle cypher. “She’s dope,” DaBaby says of Megan. “She’s one of the hottest females in rap right now.”
In person DaBaby radiates an intense energy he can barely contain. Ditto his creativity. He tells me he’s about to drop another album, ad-libbing “gang!” for emphasis. “It’s going platinum in less than 30 days,” he insists. “Promise. Number One off the roof! Fo’ sho’!
“You gotta be self-sufficient, you know?” DaBaby says of his hunger for success. “Not get signed and sit on your ass and wait for [the record label] to tell you what’s next.”
He credits his aspirational attitude to his uncle, who helped raise him – his father was in the army and often away. He told young Jonathan “to always want more and to reach for whatever you think is unattainable.” So, from the age of five, he decided he wanted to live in a mansion and never work a nine-to-five.
“My mom said that when I was a kid I was claiming that by the time I was an adult I’d be something spectacular,” he says, flashing that smile again. “I always felt like I was special. Always.”
Grooming Marina Rose, Production Rosanna Gouldman, Photography assistance Víctor Paré, Andre Jacques, Styling assistance Wisam Masri and Amanda Jiang, Production Management Katherine Bampton. Thanks to Street Studios, Nicole Ojo and Mitsumi Reh-Van