The Lowdown: Rap moves too fast. It’s not healthy. Lil Uzi Vert should not feel “old.” Fetty Wap should not feel like a relic. Tyler, the Creator should not be an elder statesman. Kanye should not be in a retirement home. (Well. Maybe he should.) As we approach the 2020s, it’s worth realizing that everyone I just mentioned was extremely culturally important in the same decade. All of these people made headlines in a timespan the same length as the space between R.E.M.’s Murmur and Automatic for the People.
Prolific North Carolina artist DaBaby, however, has gone from an unknown to the biggest non-country (what a qualifier) rap success story of 2019 by releasing three albums in the length of time between Out of Time and Automatic for the People. It’s almost a warp-speed prototype of a rap career: the word-of-mouth breakthrough (Blank Blank), the major label debut (Baby on Baby), and with the just-released Kirk, the “victory lap.”
The Good: How much you respond to Kirk may depend on your tolerance for assembly lines. What was the last Curren$y mixtape you checked out? What was the last Snoop Dogg album you had expectations for? Are you still playing everything Future releases in hopes for a “return to form?” DaBaby’s a more ideal cottage industry than any of the above, with his sonorously baritone rat-a-tat flow, simple-not-insulting hookbeats, and short, punchy releases. “INTRO” hints at emotional and economic growth with its big-budget video and widescreen musical palette, plus some rare autobiography in the mix. But Kirk doesn’t stray from the formula much beyond some worthwhile singing on “IPHONE”, which is also the most attractive Nicki Minaj showcase in some time, and some adventurous, Black Panther-influenced productions (the irresistible whistled loop of “TOES”, the RPG-ready flute on “BOP”).
The Bad: The problem with churning ‘em out, though, is you get old faster. Despite not being all that different from Kirk or Baby on Baby, late December’s Blank Blank was an instant classic without a wasted second, every hook instantly insidious and every joke, even the off-color ones, hungry with rude-asshole charm. Success changes that. By now, DaBaby’s abandoned his world-class tag (R.I.P. girl who intones “That’s not DaBaby, that’s my baby”), his prankish, early Eminem videos, and any humor at all really (“If a fat bitch know how to get some money/ I’ll fuck a fat bitch” really deflates those adorable pictures of him and Lizzo that made the rounds on rap Twitter earlier this month), and he spends these bars detailing muddled grudges (“Prolly Heard” attacks people claiming he’s broke. Who’s claiming he’s broke?) and the usual boredom with money only 10 times quicker than 50 Cent’s slide from Get Rich or Die Tryin’ to Curtis. When he brags about his label asking him to finish the album while he’s busy looking up boat prices on “BOP”, he inadvertently makes the listener side with the label. And in the same song, “milli” really doesn’t rhyme with “legitly” despite the hook’s many attempts to convince us otherwise.
The Verdict: Look, it’s not like even us Blank Blank worshippers thought the dude had many places to evolve. He’s a fast-and-dirty thrill in small doses, and that’s exactly what he still delivers. But being proudly retrograde loses its charm when you phone it in, and by definition there’s no future in it. His exploration of melodies is a welcome relief, but they ring false compared to the easy gumption of “Walker Texas Ranger” and “Best Friend”; the Chance the Rapper set piece, “GOSPEL” (there’s an on-the-nose title), sounds beamed in from another album. DaBaby remains a quick-lipped little shit worth your half-hour lunch break, but Kirk sounds like an album he made while shopping for boats, and it’s not hard to imagine being completely done with him by, oh, this time next year. As of now, though, he’s just topped off his winning streak with the most predictable rap album you’ll hear in 2019 that isn’t actually bad in any way. And like everything else about his rise, that’s way too soon.
Essential Tracks: “TOES”, “IPHONE”, and “INTRO”