Lil Baby raps through the motions on “My Turn”

29
Alice Feng/The Occidental

In the opening months of 2020, the digital rap market has seen a flood of first-quarter albums, mixtapes and data dumps. To find worthwhile gems, fans are tasked with parsing through oversaturated projects and underdeveloped emcees. Even artists whose industry positions range from middling to marquee have question marks over their output. Perhaps this will be the year we find out if Atlanta’s new generation of rappers, like Lil Baby, Lil Keed and Gunna, will continue in their artistic development. When local superstars Young Thug and Future leaned into commercial consistency, they left the street-level stylings to the next generation. To fill this void, Lil Baby and Gunna’s partnership achieved national success with hot air hits like “Drip Too Hard” and “Sold Out Dates.” These records are efficient but hardly original. Both artists activate their own riffs off of Young Thug’s slippery vocal performances. Fast forward to 2020 and listeners sit in suspense — who will make this decade’s first great rap album? It is safe to say that title will not be going to Lil Baby. After putting out seven projects in two years, the 25-year-old artist released a new album, “My Turn,” Feb 28.

The title “My Turn” makes Lil Baby’s intentions unmistakably clear. He is offloading another album to the assembly line. The album matches the lack of imagination afforded in the cover art. Surely, some more conceptual effort would go a long way toward separating him from his peers. Last year, Gunna’s hilarious album artwork for “Drip or Drown 2” raised the bar for this new generation. In contrast, Lil Baby’s cover simply blends into the background of a livemixtapes page. “My Turn” does not stick out and thus falls susceptible to convenient comparisons. It was released during the same weekend as Chicago rapper G Herbo’s album “PTSD.” Atlanta’s budding star should be grateful that sharing release dates is now seen as a coincidence instead of competition. Lil Baby seems capable of equaling Herb in maturity and intensity, but it has not happened yet. He has natural skills for someone relatively new to the art form. His life changed in 2016 when he began rapping following a two-year prison sentence. While previous projects offered shades of developing talent, “My Turn” shows Lil Baby retreating into the familiar pitbull barking raps we already know he can do. As more than just a commercial compromise, it intentionally conforms to expectation.

Within the album, there are few surprises. The songs carry friction, but the listening experience as a whole does not. Lil Baby’s rapping is serviceable, but too frequently he relies on trends over style. His descriptions come in fragmented flashes as each track employs a similar vocabulary. Ironically, it sounds like the opposite of his predecessor’s chaotic unpredictability. Young Thug bent words and phrases, while Lil Baby simply knows where to put them. There aren’t hints that tell us the latter is interested in challenging the average listener. He is comfortable working on iterations of vocal techniques that others already innovated. The surface of “My Turn” is taken in all at once and sustained by momentary jolts. 20 songs is entirely too long for a record that so often repeats itself. Lil Baby dips and lifts through melodic flows with routine ease. There is some slickness to how he slips through word traps, but it is without the necessary sense of urgency. His voice projects confidence and consistency. Stories concerning the pressures of fame could offer insight if they were not constantly interrupted by hollow boasts. Lil Baby’s run-on sentence raps relax into cliched platitudes. They sound ‘tough,’ but barely interesting.

“My Turn” contains eight guest appearances clustered in the middle of the track list. Like flimsy Band-Aids, these features fail to cover boring tracks. Phoned-in spurts from Young Thug and Future sound obligatory and without excitement. Still, they offer name recognition. Lil Baby’s song with frequent collaborator Gunna titled “Heatin Up” falls flat and sets the predictable tone of the album. Together, they received a Best Rap Song nomination at the recent Grammy Awards for “Drip Too Hard.” The music industry appears ready to promote Lil Baby if he can produce an inspiring album. So far, he has not moved beyond rapping like a car revving its engine at a red light. However, the most intriguing moments on “My Turn” take place during the song “Emotionally Scarred.” On this track, he is at his most reflective. He is not weighed down by any features. The production features a rippling guitar and forceful rolling hi-hats. This song is still within his comfort zone, but he sounds impressively concise.

The label executives in Lil Baby’s ear should not shy away from the fact that he is a borderline marquee act in today’s rap world. He can afford to take some artistic risks. It will not be surprising if we get five more albums that sound almost exactly like “My Turn.” The album offers a safe sound that fans are already comfortable with.