With multi-platinum albums, the acclaimed protest song “The Bigger Picture,” and Sunday’s Grammy win for “Best Melodic Rap Performance” to his name, Lil Baby doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. In fact, his 47 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 chart place him in the same league as music legends Paul McCartney and Prince when it comes to making hits — but his indisputable standing in the top bracket of the rap game wasn’t a sure bet.
The Atlanta-born rapper sprung to fame seemingly out of nowhere in 2017 with the release of his mixtape “Perfect Timing.” Aptly named, the mixtape was the outcome of a fortunate encounter between Lil Baby, then a drug dealer, and Quality Control label head Coach K. Lil Baby had to be coaxed into pursuing rap over a dangerous lifestyle that landed him behind bars on more than occasion. But once he put his mind to it and was signed to the label, he hit the ground running, dropping four projects in a single year and three the next.
In spite of his serious street cred in the South, before 2020, Lil Baby’s national visibility had a big asterisk next to it. After all, much of his initial success outside the region stemmed from collaborations with established rappers like Young Thug, Gunna and Lil Uzi Vert. The streams attributed to his 2018 debut album “Harder than Ever” overwhelmingly belong to the song “Yes Indeed,” which opens with a knockout verse from Drake that virtually guaranteed it a spot on rap playlists and club setlists.
With 2020’s “Sum 2 Prove” — the lead single for his sophomore LP, “My Turn” — Lil Baby would put to rest any doubts over his individual artistic strength.
The song opens with a retro synth that stutters over a mysterious piano melody. In the backdrop plays a soft strings ensemble — underneath it, a grumbling sub-bass convulses the listener’s car speakers, warning of impending straight heat.
From the moment he jumps on the track, Lil Baby flows effortlessly. He relates his troubled past — including jail time, financial distress and unnamed enemies — with a breathlessness that thrusts the listener from one flashback to the next. Interwoven are bars that juxtapose these memories against his modern-day success. He both relishes his newfound wealth and reviles the envy and disloyalty it attracts.
“Eviction notice, my sister, my mamas / Now they houses as big as they want 'em,” he rhymes in one especially personal moment. “I done ran up them motherf— commas, look at lil' Dominique,” he continues, referring to himself by his government name, Dominique Jones.
Even before the first verse is up, the rapper lays down his ambitions to “be one of them greats,” as a barrage of Zay 808 bass drums punctuates the message. Rapid-fire percussion and a subtle riser build momentum for the eponymous refrain, where Lil Baby announces he has “somethin’ to prove.” He also asks the listener, “I be walkin' on beats, is you hearin' me?”, a fourth-wall break that makes the recognition of his masterful delivery a mutual one between him and the audience he addresses.
Mainstream trap music has a well-deserved reputation of banal lyrics about wealth, women and jewelry. Even in some of the greatest songs, there are often just a handful of lines one is excited to rap along to. “Sum 2 Prove” is remarkably well-written from beginning to end, with a quotable, original flex appearing every other line. Listeners will be struggling to keep up with the breakneck pace that kicks in when Lil Baby hits his stride.
It is difficult for a song to be special on lyrical and rhythmic merit alone. The instrumental for “Sum 2 Prove,” produced by labelmate Twysted Genius, deserves credit as a perfect template for street life storytelling and chest thumping. The Quality Control in-house producer expertly melds tried-and-true trap sounds with a symphonic arrangement and creative drum placements. The result is a beat that builds and releases tension in unexpected ways, complimenting Lil Baby’s sudden transitions between casually reminiscing on haters to rapping as if his life depends on it. From beginning to end, Lil Baby commands one’s attention, and he does it with only the music to rely on.
In all, “Sum 2 Prove” is an anthem for anyone who has ever had a chip on their shoulder or a score to settle. The music video — which depicts the stark contrast between Lil Baby’s humble roots and present-day riches — remains a fan favorite to this day, gaining roughly 3 million views a month. And the song crucially built anticipation for “My Turn,” the best-selling album of 2020 and arguably Lil Baby’s first project to cement his status at the top.
Of course, the artist has become known for other successful tracks in the past few years. After being overshadowed by Drake on Lil Baby’s “Yes Indeed,” Lil Baby returned the favor — or perhaps, dishonor — by bodying him on Drake’s “Wants and Needs,” and recently dropped a high quality collab record with Lil Durk. Still, it’s worth remembering the song that presaged such a rapid ascent to eminence.
As Lil Baby explains on the track — “Might as well get used to me / My biggest fear is endin' up a used-to-be.”
“The Butterfly Effect” is a column that explores the significance of selected hip-hop tracks and albums, many of which raised artists to new levels of stardom.