DaBaby’s “Rockstar” Year: How a No. 1 Song Earned Him Grammy Recognition and Carried Him Through a Pandemic
Over the past two years, DaBaby has dominated hip-hop and he’s nowhere near done. With his own label, Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment, heating up and a track record of releasing hit albums and singles that hasn’t cooled down, the newly anointed hip-hop superstar is on fire.
Words: Vanessa Satten
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Imagine having two huge, career-impacting years, back to back. That doesn’t happen for everyone, but DaBaby has been lucky enough to experience that rarity. He first started rapping around 2015, and has released 13 mixtapes since then, but didn’t get real recognition until 2019. That’s when the Interscope Records artist dropped his debut album, BABY ON BABY, which peaked as high as No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart with the help of the smash hit “Suge.” Just months later, still in 2019, Baby put out KIRK, which offered the hit record “BOP.” The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, giving the Charlotte, N.C. rapper a huge boost to stardom.
Baby was recording his next effort and about to tour worldwide when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, forcing him to stay home. While quarantining, the artist wrapped up what he had left to record of his third album, BLAME IT ON BABY. The rap titan announced the release of that LP on April 13 and put it out the very next day. It went straight to No. 1. The breakout single “ROCKSTAR” featuring Roddy Ricch sat at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks in 2020. In August, Baby offered BLAME IT ON BABY’s deluxe edition with 11 extra songs.
In addition to his own projects, DaBaby got looks as a guest feature on three big tracks this year: singer Camilla Cabello’s “My Oh My,” Jack Harlow’s “Whats Poppin (Remix)” and Pop Smoke’s “For The Night.” And in late 2020, Baby dropped an EP, My Brother’s Keeper (Long Live G), a tribute to his older brother who passed away in November. Amidst Baby’s immense success and some sadness, the rapper and CEO, born Jonathan Kirk, has been building Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment. With a solid roster and steely determination, he is focused on making it three huge years—back to back to back.
On the last day of November of the most bizarre year in modern history, Baby, 28, has just finished getting his photos taken at West Hollywood’s Beachwood Studio and is now showing his artists what to do. He watches intently as they get their shots taken and helps direct them with poses, then looks through the images, selecting the best ones. Not until his artists are taken care of is he ready for his interview.
XXL: 2020 has been a crazy year. We’ll start with the coronavirus and quarantine. How have you been handling it? Just from the top of the year what have you been doing? How have you been dealing with the virus, the pandemic and being at home?
DaBaby: When the pandemic first hit, you know, I got an album together and put an album out and it went No. 1 at the height of the pandemic with “ROCKSTAR,” for seven weeks. During the pandemic, I’ve been the longest-lasting artist on Billboard fo’sho, so I feel like I definitely adapted to it and made it happen. I like the results of the work I put [in] during the pandemic, fo’sho.
How much of the album did you record during the pandemic versus before? How did you handle promo for an album during a pandemic?
Dropping an album during a pandemic was definitely a different thing. You don’t got none of the resources or the marketing tools that you normally have when dropping a brand new project. Everything was frozen. A lot of those songs I did, I had already recorded maybe like four songs of the 13 songs on that project. The rest of them, I had just recorded. “ROCKSTAR” was one of those; I already knew what it was as soon as I recorded it. That was one of the last ones I recorded before I put it out.
It was a challenge to say the least to put an album out during a pandemic. All the interviews is virtual, Zoom calls and all that. You can’t perform the music. That’s a major thing to me. Like, I’m a performer, so, you know, that was completely different. I hadn’t performed “ROCKSTAR” not one time and I mean I’ve never performed that song and it’s probably gonna be a little minute before I do get a chance to perform it. I’m just adapting and going with the flow.
What was it like being at home at the same time? You’re putting out an album and promoting it and dealing with your kids and family and business and all that. How did you juggle everything?
When I got more time with my family, more time with my kids, that was dope. It was like a blessing in disguise for me because I had hit the ground running since I popped. I hadn’t sat down. I hadn’t taken a week off since I started, maybe not even four days. I would take like, a day-and-a-half off at a time. I’ll come back to the crib and then I dip right back out. I was just gone, gone, gone, but I’m glad that I did ’cause I could’ve took my time and been more patient with it like a lot of people who had their one hit. They would’ve had “Suge” and they would’ve sat back and let it ride out, but then you would’ve ran into a fucking pandemic where you can’t even perform shit. You can’t do nothing now.
You can’t grow.
Yeah, now it’s a risk if you even drop music, period. A lot of people are scared to drop music during the pandemic. I came in relentless with the way I put shit out like, I’m gon’ always go with the vibe. If I feel like it’s time to drop music, I’m going to drop. I’ma drop. I’ma drop current music. The music I drop is going to be how I’m feeling at the time or I don’t really care to drop it. It’s how I like to put it out, you know what I mean? So, that’s exactly what I did. Pandemic or no pandemic and leading up to it.
I feel like the way that I put shit together leading up to the pandemic definitely put me in a position to where, right when the pandemic hit, like, I leveled up completely. I’m on a whole other wave right now. It’s just a blessing to be there during the pandemic. And to drop the song, getting all the way through there during the pandemic. That’s something can’t nobody take away from me. It can’t be done again.
And that Pop Smoke “For The Night” featuring you and Lil Baby.
That’s a big record. The last time I looked at the charts, it reemerged in the Top 10. Major record.
You switched your flow up a little with some of the records on BLAME IT ON BABY. You got a bit of backlash, but then it ultimately worked in your favor. What was your feeling on that?
Nah, it did, it worked in my favor fo’sho. It’s gonna be naysayers no matter what you do. One of the songs that I did switch my flow up on was “ROCKSTAR” and it went No. 1 for seven or eight weeks straight and it’s the song of the year. Without a shadow of a doubt. No song has outperformed “ROCKSTAR.” We found out it went No. 1 while we were on set shooting the video. It went No. 1 just organically off of being a great song so I don’t really trip off that. I like to fuck with people, don’t poke at ’em, you know what I’m saying, about the little switching flow shit, but you know this flow right here, it’s righteous. It ain’t nothing I can’t do with it. So, I like to have my fun here and there, let people know that I do this shit.
So, you just said that you like to fuck with people. It’s kinda hard to tell if you’re nice or not or you’re a dick or you’re cool…
You know I’m nice [laughs]. I’m a sweetheart.
How would you explain yourself to somebody who can’t really figure out what’s going on with you?
If I had to explain myself, I would say I’m an angel.
Are you an angel? That smile tries to make people think you’re an angel.
I’m an angel. I smiled for a year straight. I was smiling all of 2019. Every picture.
Because you were so happy?
Yup. ’Cause I’m an angel.
What’s your definition of an angel?
I mean no harm. I’m just here to bring greatness to the table.
Did anything not go your way in 2019?
Everything went my way in 2019. Ain’t nothing not go my way in 2019. Besides everyday life problems, but I take those in stride and keep it moving on up.
Did your life problems change for you because you’re dealing with more?
Mo’ money, mo’ problems, fo’sho, that’s what comes with it.
Did you understand what that meant before all of this?
Absolutely, I always did. I always been providing for my family. I always been like, the one so it’s nothing new.
Are you at all misunderstood?
I’m very misunderstood by a lot of people, but we people. Humans ain’t… Nobody’s supposed to understand something as complex. I don’t look to be understood. A person that’s understood, you know, they ain’t unique enough for me. If I could understand somebody, I got them figured out. I like people to keep me guessing, so I never hold nobody accountable for misunderstanding me. I’m my own person. I ain’t like nobody else, so you ain’t supposed to look at me from the outside looking in and understand me as a person. You going to have to get way closer. The people who I let in, I let in. And the people who I don’t, I don’t for whatever reasons suit me and my peace of mind.
What have been some of your personal highlights this year?
I just got nominated for four Grammys.
Is that a big deal for you?
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s definitely a major accomplishment. And really with me, the coolest thing about it is that when I got nominated for two Grammys last year, I was talking shit like, “Yeah, I’m going to be at the Grammys every year until I quit doing this shit. Definitely gonna be there. So, for me to double up on the amount of nominations that I got, that’s dope. And if “ROCKSTAR” don’t win the fucking Grammy, then I give up on the Grammys, you get what I’m sayin’?
What does it matter if “ROCKSTAR” doesn’t win a Grammy? Why do the Grammys matter so much?
Nah, I mean they don’t. That’s what I’m saying. It really don’t. Like, nominations alone, just being…me coming from where I come from, just being nominated for Grammys, just being on the cover of XXL Magazine. Being on XXL Freshman cover last year. Having a solo cover this year, like, that shit major. I come from shit and I ain’t from nothing and I put this shit together like this was me. I put that shit together. I made moves, you know what I’m saying? I kept it going when muthafuckas wanted me to just sit back and settle. I was like, “Fuck that. I’m doing it like this.”
I really put that work in and made them sacrifices and took the chances I had to take to get here. To see it pay off in these types of ways. Being able to come give my mama a magazine with my muthafuckin’ face on it, that shit’s major. To drop a trophy off to her. My mama been watching the Grammys and all these other awards shows, so to get nominations and my face being on the TV and I come out to perform and outperform everybody at the muthafuckin’ show, she see her baby on TV, see her baby on a magazine, that shit’s major to me. That’s what I do it for.
Let’s talk about your record label, Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment. Do you have any business partners?
Just me. I got a label deal with Interscope, but it’s just me.
Who is on the label?
We got Stunna 4 Vegas. We got Rich Dunk. We got Wisdom. We got KayyKilo. Everybody makes different styles of music.
How did you come up with the name for your label?
I’m one of those people, like, I created a brand around the same time that I started being an artist. I knew I wanted an entire brand. A lot of people, I mean, they don’t really do it off the rip. They just end up being like whatever their little clique name is. They later on turn that into an imprint. But me, I came in with an artist before I signed to a major, I had an artist already signed to me and I got them a deal with that major within six months. That’s Stunna…
I can take artists wherever I want to take them. Stunna 4 Vegas is signed to Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment and Interscope. Rich can go to Capitol Records. He can go to 300 [Entertainment]. He can go to Sony [Music Entertainment], go to Def Jam [Recordings].
Interscope’s got the first rights of refusal for your artists?
Yep, first right of refusal for artists and then we can shop them out anywhere. Anybody can match or beat anybody’s offer, but we love what the Interscope building does.
How do you like being famous? Are you enjoying the whole thing?
I mean the fame part, whatever. The bullshit that come with it done outweighed the perks by this time, you get what I’m saying? When it gets to a certain level, the bullshit outweighs the perks, but at the same time, the fame allows me to be able to generate revenue. As long as the fame allows you to generate revenue, as long as more revenue coming in, then it’s cool.
A lot of people who get the fame and don’t... Immediately I turned every moment into…like, I’m going to capitalize off of it. If I gotta go through some bullshit, I’m going to capitalize off of it like, bottom line. You going to go through some bullshit with this so it’s all good. I ain’t gonna complain. Everybody done been through it. It come with the territory. I’m talking about fame like it’s an inconvenience. It come with the territory but that’s how it is, you get what I’m saying?
OK, so you dropped three projects.
Two. I dropped BLAME IT ON BABY and then I just put out the deluxe to that. That’s all I put out this year.
Didn’t you just put out another project a week-and-a-half ago?
Oh, I did, oh my goodness. The project I put out last week, it was an EP [My Brother's Keeper (Long Live G)]. It was dedicated to my brother, you know, who just passed away maybe a month ago. But that was moreso like therapeutic and for my family. I don’t even consider that as an album. That’s like my gift to my brother and we just honored my big brother and all my other family members affected by our loss, that’s what that was about. So, I still don’t even look at that like a project that’s like, that’s just straight from the heart.
It was a very nice way to do a tribute.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m still fucked up about that, you know what I mean? So I don’t... Everything somebody needs to know, it’s in there, you know what I mean? It’s in the project.
So, you have that and BLAME IT ON BABY and the deluxe and “ROCKSTAR.” When you add it all up it comes out to a very big year for you. Yeah?
Yeah, it was cool. I probably would’ve been overseas or something right now. I was booked until like March 2021 before the pandemic even hit, so I would’ve had a crazy wild year and it would’ve been different ways I would’ve pushed different things. But like I said, I just adapt to what comes with this shit and just keep it rolling, that’s what I do. However it go, we gonna make sure we get through it.
What do you think about hip-hop right now? Sadly, we’ve lost a few rappers in the past couple of years. We just had the King Von and Quando Rondo situation. We’ve had all sorts of wild things happen this year particularly with the newer artists, the level of the artists on your roster. What’s your advice to your artists or their peers when you see things like this?
Really, just to stay out of the way and stay focused. I mean, it’s so easy to get caught up in all this shit, especially when you come from nothing and then, boom, you become such an influential person. Then you become such a target to other people who want to be where you are. I understand how it goes. I done been through the worst of it, you get what I’m saying? I’ve been through the maximum of that shit. It done went as far as it could go with that shit with me, you know what I’m saying? A majority of my artists were my artists then, no, only one of them was, but the others, they’re from North Carolina. So, they knew me so everybody know, they done seen a real-life example of it. You know, you just gotta walk right and stay focused.
You gotta stay focused on what the goal is at the end of the day. That’s the type of advice I’d give my artists or any artist that I see on the come up who run into trouble situations ’cause I run into my trouble situations all the time.
I reach out when I can and send ’em positive vibes and let ’em know to shake that shit off and keep it going. I could’ve let a number of things stop me from being where I am, but I always let the true talent that I am outshine all the bullshit—and the work ethic. That shit gonna outshine the bullshit every single time. The bullshit ain’t real enough. It ain’t. That’s not what it is. That’s not me, you know what I mean? So it’s never gonna outweigh what I bring to the table.
Did you respect Gucci Mane and Jeezy and their Verzuz battle?
Yeah, yeah, I definitely respected them for doing that. That was a major thing. I don’t know if I’d been able to do it. Yeah, they better than me.
Where do you see yourself over the next five years?
Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment [in] five years [is] definitely gonna be one of the hottest labels in the game. I’ma be retired in five years. I won’t be rapping. I’ll be creating other superstars.
What’s the dream? What would you just love to see happen to you? The ultimate thing? The peak?
A biopic. That’s what I gotta do first. I’ll do a biopic first then I’ll do other movies.
Would you play yourself?
I’ve already been sent scripts. Yeah, I would fo’sho. From a younger age, then all the way up until the present time.
You wanna go in the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ kind of direction?
I’ll take it there. I gotta crazy story. My story’s crazy and it keeps getting crazier. I seen it all. That’s gonna be a good one.
See Photos of XXL Magazine's Winter 2020 Cover Shoot With DaBaby
Check out more from XXL magazine’s Winter 2020 issue including an introduction to DaBaby's Billion Dollar Baby Entertainment label roster, an interview with South Coast Music Group founder Arnold Taylor, who discovered and signed DaBaby, and more.