A year ago, North Carolina rapper DaBaby had never had a Billboard Hot 100 hit. In 2019, he has 20 of 'em — tied with Post Malone for the most of any artist this year — and 18 of them appear on this week's Hot 100 alone.
Such is the impact of the breakout MC's second official studio LP Kirk, released two Fridays ago (Sept. 27). The album debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week, with 145,000 equivalent album units moved. It's the culmination of an extremely impressive year for the 27-year-old rising star, which also includes another hit album in March's Baby on Baby, a top 10 crossover hit in lead single "Suge," and a string of other high-profile features — including guest appearances on remixes to a couple of the year's biggest hits — with nary a misstep to be found among any of it.
What's responsible for DaBaby's seemingly unstoppable momentum? And will it continue on into the 2020s? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. It's our second Five Burning Questions of the year on DaBaby — who would've guessed? With a No. 1 album and 17 simultaneous entries (!) on the Hot 100, is he now officially the year's biggest breakout rapper?
Josh Glicksman: I apologize for kicking off my responses by sidestepping the first question… but it really depends on what we’re counting as a “rapper.” If Lil Nas X fits the description, it’s hard to argue against a guy who set the all-time record for weeks atop the Hot 100, scored a No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 with his major-label debut EP and has become nothing short of a household name. DaBaby’s ascent in 2019 is mighty impressive — most years he’d be the biggest breakout rapper, hands down. But in a year filled with Lil Nas X, Lizzo and even Megan Thee Stallion, it’s hard to give him the title without pushing him past some serious competitors.
Bianca Gracie: Well, duh! We got a preview of DaBaby’s sparkle on March’s Baby on Baby, but he really let his raw talent shine brightly — and consistently — following the debut LP’s release. The rapper hasn’t slowed down yet, and his peers have taken note. He’s hopped on tracks like Lil Nas X’s “Panini” remix and Post Malone’s “Enemies” with brilliant features that topple the main artists' own contributions. Not many have the gall to dominate like that, but DaBaby does.
Carl Lamarre: Easily. The boy got that Midas touch — sorry Drizzy. When you have pop titans at your front door clamoring for a sip of your juice, a la Post Malone, Lizzo, and Lil Nas X, you're doing something right. It's a refreshing sight to see because we haven't had a rapper of his ilk come in a long time: a twenty-something, fire-breathing lyricist who just doesn't give a fuck. His swag is contagious.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s either him or Megan Thee Stallion, who’s had a similar rise from relative unknown at the beginning of the year to household-name status for hip-hop fans, although she has yet to release a proper album with the magnitude of Kirk thus far. “Cash Shit” by Megan featuring DaBaby now feels like a time capsule — two undeniable rap personalities playing off of each other impossibly well right as they were about to blow up in their respective lanes.
Andrew Unterberger: What a year when the answer to this question isn't necessarily a resounding yes. But yeah, when Lizzo is setting fire to every award-show stage, Megan Thee Stallion now has her own season and Lil Nas X has the longest-reigning Hot 100 hit of all-time, it's not so easy to declare a flawless victory for anyone. Still, DaBaby might be the answer simply because of the volume: 20 Hot 100 hits in a year (and 13 of 13 on a new album) for an artist who was a relative unknown 12 months ago is just a staggering accomplishment, and shows just how feverish excitement is for him at the moment across the board. He's as big a blue-chipper as they come right now.
2. DaBaby's 2019 has been essentially one straight line pointing upwards. What's one crucial thing he's been doing right to keep his momentum continually crescendoing like this?
Josh Glicksman: He’s annihilating his guest spots. According to DaBaby, the tab for a feature from the North Carolina-bred rapper runs north of six digits, and it’s hard to argue given his steady production. He steals the show on Chance's “Hot Shower,” he’s the most memorable part of Dreamville's “Under the Sun” — a track that also boasts Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole on its billing — and he plays a stellar complementary role while guesting alongside fellow budding star Megan Thee Stallion on “Cash Shit.” He’s the name that artists are looking to include to give their song some extra oomph — just ask Lizzo (“Truth Hurts”) and Lil Nas X (“Panini”). Right now, New Music Friday just doesn’t feel right if it doesn’t include a killer verse from DaBaby.
Bianca Gracie: There’s no question that DaBaby can spit his ass off. Like, he doesn’t even give these poor beats a chance to breathe before he rushes in with his signature zealous flow. But I think what makes DaBaby so unique is that he’s not afraid to have a sense of humor. And he seems to be aware of his cartoonish personality, whether it’s in his over-the-top videos or red carpet outfits. Most rappers nowadays attempt to be “hard” to appeal to the streets. We already know DaBaby is about that life (remember those knockout T-shirts?) and he really doesn’t have much to prove. So why not get full-on silly?
Carl Lamarre: Baby's marketing game is serious. Everything he does is strategic. From his cooky visuals like "Suge" and "VIBEZ" to jumping on various Pop tracks to simply turning tragedies, like his father's passing in March, into a spirited album rollout and movement, has been on-point. And yeah, those T-shirts.
Jason Lipshutz:“Staying true to himself” is the corny but correct answer. After “Suge” surged up the Hot 100 and became an unlikely top 10 hit, DaBaby could have tried to pivot to a pop-leaning sound with more obvious choruses. Instead, he doubled down on what “Suge” showed that he was exceptional at — rapping his face off — and has become a star, while also ceding the occasional hook to more capable deliverers.
Andrew Unterberger: Probably myopic to focus too much on this in the playlist era, but man, I can't say enough about DaBaby's solving of the ideal album length. Streaming has seen hip-hop LPs mostly polarized into EP-length mini-albums or sprawling, 20-plus-track opuses, but both Baby on Baby and Kirk run a cool 13 tracks and a half-hour and change — ideal for single-listen consumption. Whenever you feel yourself getting itchy and find yourself wondering how many tracks are left in a DaBaby album, the answer is always "zero tracks." Kudos, young Jonathan.
3. Last time out, we asked if there was another "Suge" on Baby on Baby — and while a couple other set's singles came close, none followed it to the top ten. Will there be one off Kirk?
Josh Glicksman: If there is one, I wouldn’t anticipate it sticking around very long. My educated guess here for a potential top 10 hit would be “Vibez,” though the fan in me is hoping for a Hail Mary from “Pop Star.” DaBaby isn’t the type of artist that’s going to provide an album with a standout hit or two amid fillers — DaBaby is the type of artist that’s going to rap his face off for roughly 35 minutes and turn in a cohesive album, front-to-back. From a charts standpoint, he gives off Young Thug-type vibez (pun intended) to me: notable success with his albums, but not as many huge Hot 100 hits, at least as a lead artist.
Bianca Gracie: I have my eyes set on “Intro.” The album opener is at No. 13 on the Hot 100 this week, and it’s already a fan favorite. The song focuses on DaBaby’s lyrical dexterity and showcases a different, more vulnerable side that he hasn’t really delved into before. Hearing him reflect on his father’s passing, taking care of his daughter and reflecting on his rapid success is refreshing.
Carl Lamarre: "Intro" has the best shot being that it's currently No. 13. The momentum behind that song is surreal. Watching 10,000 plus college kids in Indiana, Pennsylvania sway back and forth fervently rapping those lyrics alongside Baby is God's work. This was a song dedicated to his family, more importantly, his father. So to watch it bubble and burst into a mainstream banger is deserving for the 27-year-old. Now, the cherry on top would be having it enter the top 10.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s got to be “Bop,” for sporting the most hypnotic flute loop this side of “Mask Off.” There are bigger pop moments on Kirk, most notably “Gospel,” but “Bop” has the beat to best amplify DaBaby’s core appeal.
Andrew Unterberger: In the wise words of Silento: Bop. Bop. Bop. Bop. (Bop-bop!)
4. Throughout its history, pop music has been littered with about a million great "Baby"-themed songs. Which one would you most like to see DaBaby reclaim for his own future anthem? (First come first serve with these, so if you want ot pick an obvious one, get your answers in sooner than later.)
Josh Glicksman: It’s been sampled many times, but DaBaby taking over Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” sounds heavenly. Let the 27-year-old rapper flex for a few verses while the bass blares in the background. And why not add a collaborator into the fold? Nicki Minaj — who turned in a guest spot on Kirk with “iPhone” — has a very well-documented history with the track, putting her own spin on it with “Anaconda” in 2014. DaBaby, Nicki Minaj and “Baby Got Back” feels like a can’t miss — and might just lead to that top 5 Hot 100 single that has eluded him thus far.
Bianca Gracie: DaBaby loves hopping on rugged, bass-heavy production, so I’d love for him to head in the complete opposite lane with Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” The 1996 hit is delicate and lush, and it would be fun to hear the oft-braggadocious rapper get in touch with his romantic side. It’s time for him to properly dedicate an anthem to the ladies.
Carl Lamarre: Justin Bieber's "Baby" is the obvious choice, so I'm going to go with Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time." Imagine re-doing the video and watching Baby whip out his machine-gun flow over a Britney classic? The carnage would be indescribable. With Baby, his newfound penchant for pop features wouldn't fluster fans at all, either. With that said, let's pay homage to Britney by sprinkling Baby's "let's go" ad-lib over the beat.
Jason Lipshutz:The answer here is very clearly “Baby Shark,” in a melding of 2019 popular culture so bulletproof I sort of can’t believe it hasn’t happened yet.
Andrew Unterberger: Let's take it all the way back to '60s Motown with a little "Ooh Baby Baby." Might need some pitch-shifting (or at least a mid-song tempo switch) to fit DaBaby's hyperactive spitting, but you couldn't ask for a colder theme song than one with the inimitable Smokey Robinson moaning the falsetto'd hook.
5. DaBaby should enter the new decade on as impressive a heater as any major artist in hip-hop. Will he still continue to build on through the first part of the 2020s and beyond, or will we look back at 2019 as DaYear of DaBaby?
Josh Glicksman: The pessimist in me is nervous: there always seems to be a turning point for artists that have gained near-consensus approval. At some point, DaBaby is going to turn in a total dud of a feature, tag too mainstream of a pop artist for his fan base’s liking or simply lose his shine as one of hip-hop’s most exciting stories of the moment. And when that happens, the Twitter trolls are going to be ready, eager to pounce. Yet, the optimist in me says bring it on: DaBaby is insanely fun to root for, and if you can’t enjoy the type of run that he’s on in 2019, then I don’t know what to tell you. There’s sure to be a misfire here or there down the road, but I’m doubling down on DaBaby.
Bianca Gracie: This has obviously been a stellar year for DaBaby, and this trajectory is just the beginning for him. If he and his team keep pushing Kirk with creative videos, the right singles, and a headlining tour, then it’ll be easy for the rapper to be at the forefront of 2020 and 2021. As for infinity and beyond? I think if he shows off more versatility with his producer selection and tapping artists from varying genres for collaborations, then he’ll remain a prominent figure in our rap conversation for many years to come.
Carl Lamarre: The name of the game is consistency. If Baby continues to fine-tune his song-making abilities, there's no reason as to why he can't continue his rise as a perennial rap star. His work ethic is insane, considering he's already dropped three projects in less than 12 months. He also has the biggest co-signs in the game. My biggest concern lies with Baby's temperament — but as long as he can evade legal troubles or any more fan fights, he'll be riding high on cloud nine well into the 2020s.
Jason Lipshutz: My hopes are high for DaBaby, because he’s established himself as far more than a one-hit wonder that could fade into obscurity once the fervor around his lone smash dies down. Even if his commercial power wanes over the next decade, at the very least he’s going to be a reliable hip-hop album artist and kinetic guest feature for years to come. Even if it’s not DaDecade of DaBaby, he’ll be peppered throughout the 2020s, no doubt.
Andrew Unterberger: That's the question, isn't it? Right now it seems like DaBaby can't lose, but there's still a certain novelty around him that he'll need to break past to be a perma-A-lister moving into the next decade. Can he switch up his flows? Can he adapt to different producers? Can he reliably hold his own at major award shows and festivals? Can he continue to push the game forward? Time will tell, but I look forward to finding out, and I'm certainly done betting against him.