On Friday morning, Lil Baby caught many by surprise. Peering at the listener behind a “No Justice, No Peace” face mask and wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, the Atlanta rapper reintroduced himself to a world that, as of late, he’s already begun to conquer.
“The Bigger Picture,” the rapper’s latest single, exists somewhere between open rage and pleading urgency. Produced by Section 8 and Noah, the song begins with morose keys, a soundbite pulled from the news detailing the Minneapolis protest, and chants from those who took to the streets. According to Lil Baby’s Instagram and his representatives, proceeds from “The Bigger Picture” will go to The National Association of Black Journalists, Breonna Taylor’s attorney, The Bail Project, and Black Lives Matter.
For over four minutes and three verses, Baby raps like a torrent, sprinting across the beat as he tries to come to grips with the weeks-long protests calling for justice after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. In verse, he’s both angry and confused — “I find it crazy the police will shoot you and know that you dead but still tell you to freeze” — trying to make sense of what millions of Americans are struggling to come to grips with. But of all the feelings Lil Baby exorcises on the track, it’s trepidation and fear that colors “The Bigger Picture.”
In form but not style, Baby is part of a lineage of Atlanta solo stars (T.I., Future, Ludacris) who become a time capsule for everything the city is, lacks, and can be. For three years, the Quality Control rapper carved out a viewpoint that was workman-like in nature. By Baby’s own admission, if Young Thug hadn’t paid him to rap, he’d likely still be in the streets. That reality colors his narrative, whether it be the glee of newly-acquired opulence and the hope it provides (“Drip Too Hard,” “Pure Cocaine”), or the emotional low points of being a famous rapper who is tired of being tired (“Emotionally Scarred,” “Close Friends”). As a storyteller, Baby’s main talent has always been his avoidance of obfuscation in favor of a direct address. Unfortunately, this often means that the popular perception of Baby’s arc is usually confined to being another trap rapper, instead of the nuanced and dexterous lyricist he’s shown signs of his entire career. So when Baby raps, “I can’t lie like I don’t rap about killing and dope, but I’m telling my youngins to vote/I did what I did ’cause I didn’t have no choice or no hope,” it’s as if he’s hedging his bet, in fear that many will render this moment inauthentic.
“The Bigger Problem” isn’t a protest song, it’s a song shaped by protest. Recently, Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown took to Instagram to share a story of walking with Baby. “We marched down Mitchell Street with our fist in the air yelling – No Justice, No Peace as he leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘this is what matters,’” he wrote. From a commercial perspective, Baby didn’t need to release “The Bigger Picture” to continue the startlingly dominant run he’s currently on. Despite a pandemic, the collapse of the touring industry, protests across the nation, and a general state of critical malaise, his streaming numbers continue to rise undeterred. Next week, Lil Baby’s My Turn — an album that’s been out for over three months — will likely be the Number One album in the country, on track to outperform Lady Gaga’s Chromatica in its respective second week. Whether he asked to be or not, Baby has become one of the voices of this moment. It’s no surprise that he’s ready for his voice to reach a new level.