The title of DaBaby’s second album of 2019 bears his family name. It’s the name that was given to Jonathan Kirk by his father, who passed away exactly six months before the record’s release, just as his son’s career was hitting a new tier of success. The cover art that decorates Kirk features DaBaby as an infant, perched on his dad’s lap, setting the tone for his examination of the family ties that bind us.
In his grief, DaBaby collapses into the gospel sounds of Intro like they’re the arms of a loved one. Over producer DJ Kid’s ultralight beam of soulful coos and pop ‘n’ click drums, the Charlotte, North Carolina star connects four generations. His thoughts begin with his grandmother, before seeing his father’s reflection in the face of his young daughter. DaBaby remembers hearing about the tragedy just a couple of days before he was due to begin touring, and bemoans the cruelty of his losing a parent right when his career was taking off: “Same time I got the news, my shit went number one, that’s fucked up,” he cries. As a hyperactive rapper with mainstream aspirations, the word “lyrical” rarely gets attached to DaBaby’s name, but here he shows himself to be a subtly excellent writer capable of packing short bars with big emotions.
Returning to his sorrow, Gospel sees DaBaby unite Chance The Rapper’s deep-rooted Christian belief and 2Pac’s raw spirituality. Over the kind of piano keys that once teased Pac to reveal his most brutal feelings, DaBaby expresses his sadness that his father died the same week as Nipsey Hussle before telling tales of a life hard lived. His presence keeps the triteness that can afflict Chance in check – Gospel is more essential than anything on Chance’s disappointing album The Big Day – while Gucci Mane comes through with his familiar Southern drawl on the final leg to add a whole other layer. Still, this is DaBaby’s meditation. The rest are just well-wishers.
But Kirk is not a lofty concept record. Most of it trades in the tightly-packed bangers that DaBaby has built his reputation on. Rather than waiting for the instrumental to settle, he’s known for rapping the moment the beat drops. He gets right in your face with a style that’s immediate and propulsive with no wasted motions. Appropriately, his voice is air locked into a sharp set of minimalist orchestrations. Booming drums and repetitive key riffs are the DaBaby way – “Shit with some bop in it,” he calls his trademark style on Bop, which is co-produced by Jetsonmade, the same beatmaker who gave him his no-frills hit Suge.
DaBaby is a rap star now and major albums from rap stars usually means guest spots from other rap stars. It’s fair to say his style doesn’t synthesise particularly well with that of Nicki Minaj on iPhone, and the concept of the pair’s thorny dealings with their respective side pieces feels a little played out. And while the Migos collaboration Raw Shit is perfectly fine, it’s a linkup which you suspect could have been more motivated by streaming strategy than creative chemistry.
Then there’s Pop Star. DaBaby lashes out at accusations that fame is making him soft. Meanwhile, Kevin Gates, a similarly robust-but-agile rapper once tipped for the kind of stardom his collaborator is enjoying, heads to Mexico to pick up some cocaine. Here, two men of contrasting journeys feel like allies. It’s Exhibit A in the case against the softening of DaBaby. In fact, Kirk is an album about strength in adversary, and it casts this rising star in a whole new light.