Lil Baby On Songwriting, Criminal Justice And 'The Bigger Picture' The 25-year-old trap titan discusses his songwriting process, his experience in the criminal justice system and why, even as one of the biggest rappers alive, he doesn't believe he's made it just yet.
NPR logo

Lil Baby On Taking Music Apart To See 'The Bigger Picture'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923944010/926051689" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Lil Baby On Taking Music Apart To See 'The Bigger Picture'

Lil Baby On Taking Music Apart To See 'The Bigger Picture'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923944010/926051689" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

One of the most popular rappers in the country right now is 25 and goes by the name Lil Baby. His songs have been streamed billions of times. His most recent album spent weeks at number one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOAH")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) Bend her over, then I murk her. Call Gunna if you want you a Birkin. Oh, baby, you be lyin' in your verses. I be hearin' say you buyin' 'em purses. I can't even lie.

KING: Here's the crazy thing. Four years ago, Lil Baby was in prison. He had no professional music experience. And he had no idea that in a few years he'd be famous.

Can you walk around Atlanta at this point and not be recognized or does everyone in your hometown know who you are?

LIL BABY: Everyone everywhere I go knows who I am, Atlanta or anywhere I go around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOAH")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) None of you guys get fly as me, whoa. Matter of fact, none of you guys get high as me, whoa.

KING: Lil Baby grew up poor. He was a generous kid with a single mom. He sold drugs in part to help her pay the bills. And he loved music, and he loved words.

LIL BABY: So when I was young, I used to dissect music. Like, I used to know every song word for word. Like, that was, like, one of my goals to just know this song from front to back.

KING: Sometimes he would change the words in the song to make them about him.

LIL BABY: So I wouldn't really, like, make a rap, but I just like music so much I start putting it into my life. So I take someone else song and, like, make it for me.

KING: Later, when he went to jail and didn't have access to music, he'd ask his friends to play him songs over the phone. And you know how in prison you can get letters? He told one friend, don't worry about sending letters, just send me lyrics.

When you open your mail and there are song lyrics there, what are you feeling?

LIL BABY: I feel like I can hear the song.

KING: But Lil Baby, whose given name is Dominique Jones, did not think that rapping for a living would ever be an option. So as a teenager, he started dealing drugs.

LIL BABY: No other choice in that sense. I ain't going to say only choice but one of the better choices that I had. I knew it wasn't the right thing to do, but it's kind of - I thought was the way to go.

KING: Of course, it caught up with him, and after stints in jail, he was sentenced to prison. He served about two years on weapons and drug charges surrounded by older men, some of them who were in for violent crimes.

LIL BABY: And not so unfortunate, so many people from Atlanta are in those situations that I actually seen people that I knew - a family member, two or three people that are actually from my neighborhood, people I went to school with. So it was almost like I kind of knew the people who was there already.

KING: Do you think the criminal justice system treated you fairly?

LIL BABY: It's not about a point of the criminal justice system treating you fairly or not because the criminal justice is unjust as a whole. All right. I committed a crime or whatever, but they sent me to a prison for two years with no structure. So it's like it doesn't even make sense to send me to prison, you get what I'm saying? Like, it doesn't better you.

KING: I mean, most people would say you did something wrong. In the United States, when you do something wrong, you go to prison. What doesn't make sense about that?

LIL BABY: Because prison is just like sitting you in a room somewhere that - what does that do to better you for society? Or what does that do to help you change? Or what does that do? It's almost to me jail makes you worse. You become like a human animal.

KING: A human animal - he used that imagery in a song this summer. It was released as anti-police brutality protests erupted. The song's called "The Bigger Picture." And it became kind of like an anthem for Black Lives Matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIGGER PICTURE")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) Throw us in cages like dogs and hyenas. I went to court, and they sent me to prison. My mama was crushed when they said I can't leave. First, I was drunk, then I sobered up quick when I heard all that time that they gave to Taleeb. He got a life sentence plus.

KING: I'm going to read you some of your lyrics - they killing us for no reason, been going on for too long to get even, throw us in cages like dogs and hyenas.

Is that how you feel about the police...

LIL BABY: Yes, ma'am.

KING: ...That they treated you like an animal?

LIL BABY: Yes, ma'am. You don't have a leash on your neck, but you got handcuffs on your wrists. You're not in a dog cage, but you're in a human cage. They feed you when they want to feed you. You eat when they tell you to eat. You - it's almost like being a dog.

KING: Did you think that while you were in prison or did you have to wait until you came out to be able to get to the point of saying they treat us like dogs?

LIL BABY: I mean, you think that while you there. I mean, you getting the treatment every single second, so that's all you can think about it. It doesn't rehabilitate you, though. It will make you not want to do the same thing again, though.

KING: So he didn't. He didn't have any professional music experience. But what he had was connections at a music studio from his days as a dealer and all those years of writing in his head and rapping in his head. He had skills.

It's so interesting because I feel like people are like, oh, you've only been a rapper for four years. And I'm tempted to say I don't think that's quite right. It sounds like this has pretty much been your life and your passion since you were a kid.

LIL BABY: Right, without even knowing. It's just a passion for like - you know, just some people love music, but I ain't even never think that I'll be doing the music.

KING: What was the moment when you started to believe you could be a rapper?

LIL BABY: The first day I made a song because once I posted on my page, I got, like, a great reaction. So I was like, I'm gonna rap.

KING: Today, less than four years later, Lil Baby has had 47 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. He is tied with Paul McCartney and Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUM 2 PROVE")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) Livin' like we in a race. I might come in first or second, but I won't never be last.

KING: What is your process like as a musician? Do you write first and then rap?

LIL BABY: Well, my process is I get my engineer to play a group of beats. Once I find a vibe, I'll go in there and just rap off the top of my head. I actually never wrote a rap.

KING: You're just pulling the words out of your mind.

LIL BABY: Yes, ma'am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUM 2 PROVE")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) We finally made it. Let's pop us some bottles. I took the lead and let everyone follow. They know I'm runnin' it right to the bank. They want me to ease up. I didn't leave 'em any breathing room. Sorry, I told them I can't.

KING: You sound to me like someone who has found a calling. Are you doing everything you want now? Are you - have you made it?

LIL BABY: From where I come from, I made it for sure, all the way hands down. But where I'm trying to go, I ain't got there yet.

KING: Where are you trying to go?

LIL BABY: When I get $100 million, then I feel like I made it.

KING: So at the end of the day, you really do want to make money.

LIL BABY: Yes, ma'am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUM 2 PROVE")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) I got somethin' to prove. Yeah, I'm young but got somethin' to lose.

KING: OK, leaving the millions of dollars aside, I wanted to know after everything he's been through - growing up in poverty, going to prison, this massive commercial success - is it meaningful to him to have one of his songs embraced by the Black Lives Matter movement?

LIL BABY: It's meaningful for me, and I'm definitely proud of it because it's like it's working in a good way for me and for my people. And it let me know that my mind state is not all the way wrong. The way I feel and the way I'm thinking, that's not wrong.

KING: You're saying that when hundreds of thousands of people go out into the street and say the same thing you've been saying, you feel like, yeah, it's not just me.

LIL BABY: Right, exactly. Because, you know, sometimes people think, like, am I tripping, you know what I'm saying?

KING: Yeah, yeah.

LIL BABY: Or, like, you know, maybe it's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIGGER PICTURE")

LIL BABY: (Rapping) It's bigger than black and white. It's a problem with the whole way of life. It can't change overnight. But we got to start somewhere.

KING: That's the rapper Lil Baby talking about his song, "The Bigger Picture." His most recent album is called "My Turn."

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.