A blazing red carpet is splayed down the shiny marble floors in the ornate lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel on this early February night. The most important figures in global culture squeeze into the iconic property to make their way through the sets of double doors that lead into a packed ballroom. The round tables, topped with centerpieces and soft lighting, give off more of a wedding impression than the marquee event of Grammy weekend: the Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala. It’s the long-running tradition hosted by the legendary record executive held annually and famous for a guest list equal parts tight, eclectic, and high wattage.
In addition to names like Tim Cook (even the A-Listers line up to snap a selfie with the Apple maverick), the most important names in music have been whisked here by Davis. They’re mixed together in the audience like a playlist of superstars on shuffle: over there is Cardi B, over here are the likes of Joni Mitchell and members of Metallica. But it’s the cavalcade of surprise performers here who really count, an invite by Davis historically mint- ing their stardom or marking the beginning of it. On stage, every form of music is represented; Davis introducing acts like Lizzo, Italian rock band Måneskin, and Jennifer Hudson with breathless accounts of their chart-topping records and commercial success.
The night reaches a crescendo when Swizz Beatz, who Davis anointed to curate the hip-hop portion of the proceedings, takes the stage. He was tasked with choosing two acts who represent the genre. Lil Wayne is one of them. Lil Baby is the other.
“That was definitely one of those different experiences,” Lil Baby tells me with the benefit of hindsight, about two months later on an early spring day from his home in Atlanta. “I’ve performed at awards shows with a big variety of people in the room, but the Pre-Grammy Gala is more of a broader crowd.” He thinks for a moment. “The greats—performing for all of the greats.”
With that descriptor, Lil Baby fits right in among them. One of the most stratospheric breakout artists of the modern era, the 28-year-old has a long list of accolades to his name. After a series of viral mixtapes and an acclaimed debut album, his sophomore effort My Turn, released on the eve of the pandemic era in February 2020, exploded onto the charts. With 14 tracks landing on the Hot 100, it was a feat that tied him with greats like Paul McCartney and Prince. The album subsequently became the biggest streamer of the year, outpacing the likes of Taylor Swift and The Weeknd. He also became Drake’s go-to feature.
And in an industry so fickle that led Chris Rock to once joke artists are “Here today, gone today!” Lil Baby flaunted the fast-moving nature of success and collected even more accolades upon the release of his follow-up, It’s Only Me. Upon dropping last fall, he became the third-ever artist in the 64-year history of the charts to notch 25 hits at once on the Hot 100, including the No. 8 peaking smash “Forever” with fellow rapper, Fridayy. Aside from his commercial success, the songwriting organization ASCAP named Lil Baby Songwriter of the Year for two years in a row. A Grammy? He has one of those, too, taking home the trophy for “Hurricane,” his collaboration with Kanye West and The Weeknd.
The rapper is surprisingly nonchalant when it comes to his success, speaking with the laidback swagger of someone who has surely proven himself. “I can’t even say what’s been the biggest milestone or biggest accomplishment,” he muses, “it all just happened so fast. It’s something that makes me want to continue to just go hard.” Then again, how else could he think, especially when back at the Beverly Hilton he was considered on the same level as Lil Wayne, an artist whose first album dropped in 1999, when Lil Baby’s youthful moniker wasn’t so far from the truth. (He was four).
“I just go with it,” Baby continues, touching on the fact that the night before he was guest of honor watching his hometown basketball team, the Atlanta Hawks. “If somebody wants to put me on the jumbotron, I just go with it. Whatever the situation, I don’t try to make a big deal out of it too much.”
I come to find out that a large part of the artist’s perspective stems from what becomes a motif during our conversation. It wasn’t too long ago, just back in 2014 in fact, when he was locked up for the crime of possessing and selling marijuana. Shocking then, and even more stunning in retrospect, he received the draconian sentence of two years behind bars.(He was released after six months).
Contrast those low lows with his aforementioned high highs, including the city of Atlanta recently giving the rapper his own official day in a ceremony with Senator Raphael Warnock on hand. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone else who has first-hand accounts of the two extreme ends of what life can hand you at any given moment.
Lil Baby marvels at the odds of going from federal incarceration to a government honor in less than a decade. “It’s gotta be more than one in a million, definitely,” he says with a lasting sound of disbelief in his voice. “I’ve been so low, and so high, and I never heard anyone say it like that, and I never thought about it like that. But that’s the main thing. I’ve seen stuff people never get a chance to see, I experienced things people never experience, whether it’s my will or someone else’s. That’s why I just keep coasting and keep it cool because I know how it could or couldn’t go. Even the lows; if it weren’t for my lows, there wouldn’t be any highs. I wouldn’t even know how to approach a situation to determine how high I was.”
Growing up, the man born Dominique Armani Jones had nary a chimerical aspiration to dominate hip hop, let alone enter show business. He actually only had one goal. “I wanted to be rich and take care of my family,” he says. “That was my dream since I was a kid. I imagined buying my own house and cars and taking care of my family.” Originally, Lil Baby went after that dream making cash selling weed, dropping out of high school to commit to the gig full-time. “I never thought I’d be a rapper one day, but I always wanted to take care of everybody. So in that way, I’m living out my dream. But the way it’s coming true, I never could have thought.”
That altruistic attitude, well, isn’t just talk. Part of the reason why Atlanta honored the man isn’t because of his sharp verses (though that’s undeniable). Since entering the public eye, he has given back at a relentless level, from establishing a $150,000 scholarship at his former Booker T. Washington High School, hosting Atlanta’s annual Back to School festival which gifts necessities and services to students in advance of the school year (right down to haircuts), and launching an initiative to employ 100 people under the age of 21 at area restaurants. “When I imagined myself rich,” Baby shares, “I always imagined my community and what I would do for the neighborhood.” I propose that maybe he never would have been successful without a penchant and promise to give back, with the tricky way the universe works. “I’ve always thought, I think... it doesn’t look as good on me as it does on someone else,” he says of his generosity. “If I buy a new car, I don’t know how it looks going down the street if I’m in the car. But if I bought you a car, I know exactly how it looks when you pull in and you pull out. You know what I’m saying? I like that. Versus me, I’m in the moment, so I don’t get the same reaction as opposed to if I’m on the outside.”
As legend has it, Lil Baby’s origin story began with him becoming a familiar face at Atlanta’s famed Quality Control Music, whose roster includes Migos and Lil Yachty. But instead of rapping, he was selling the crew weed. It wasn’t until founder Kevin “Coach K” Lee offered encouragement that, considering he had stories to tell and a singular attitude to showcase, rapping might be something he might want to pursue. He recalls of those early days: “Coach K kind of single-handedly convinced me to rap. Definitely. Once I started, I had a group of other people who said, ‘keep going, keep going.’ But Coach K from Quality Control was the first person to put it in my head, to be a rapper.”
With that decision, he brought an inherent passion for music to his craft—with his verses showcasing a raw authenticity that other artists may only pretend they em-body on a theatrical level. “I don’t think even that it’s like they want to be tough,” Baby says of some of the play-acting found in music,“but it’s the cool thing or a trend or whatever. Me actually knowing the lifestyle, the consequences and repercussions that come from that kind of life, I know that it’s not cool. I know better than to portray that. I get how little kids, who know nothing about it, know about this because of what they see and hear. They don’t even understand what’s really going on.”
About a year ago, the artist experienced another one of those high highs: an invitation to the White House to accompany the family of George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death in support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It was an invite that stemmed from his acclaimed song, “The Bigger Picture,” which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Naturally, he reportedly donated $1.5 million of the proceeds of the smash to underserved communities. “That was one of those stand-out times, going to the White House,” he remembers. “Having been to the penitentiary, that was crazy. I got a chance to see the President working; it’s one of those things as kids or adults you can only imagine, but I got to get a firsthand take on what goes on there.”
Lil Baby specifically hit it off with Vice President Kamala Harris, and, of course, one of the topics of conversation shifted to Atlanta. “She has a connection there and another guy who was there went to college in Atlanta as well,” he recalls. “It’s to the point where it’s like, damn. It makes you wonder.” He pauses, then says, a grim thought about parts of his past life no doubt passing through his head, “I’m so glad it didn’t go another way. On a real level, though, even when it comes to my family, I don’t have to worry about this or that. Everyone has their problems, but for the most part, everybody has a nice roof over their head. The main thing is that nobody can complain and that’s the best feeling in the world. And when I’m saying nobody, I mean nobody."
Photographed by Kendall Bessent
Written by Rob LeDonne
Styled by Zoe Costello
Flaunt Film: Shane Chine
Creative Producer: Mui-Hai Chu
Market Assistants: Brandon Yamada,
On Set Assistant: Claire Davis
Production Assistant: Renee Richards