A look at DaBaby's unique breed of gangster rap, which relies on humor as much as it does on malice.
DaBaby is hilarious. In his videos he's cosplayed Chuck Norris' character from Walker Texas Ranger, told a cop to download his mixtape, played a mailman, and given an in-depth explanation for why he only flies private. He wore a diaper as a publicity stunt at SXSW 2017. When Nardwuar did his signature freeze pose after interviewing DaBaby, the rapper put a ski mask on him and covered him in money. He's rapped about pulling up to his old school and fucking all of his teachers. He's got an iced out Stewie from Family Guy chain. Dude is a comedic genius.
DaBaby's also not someone you want to fuck with. Sure, he boasts on-record as much as any other rapper, but unlike most he has the stats to back it up. Last year he shot and killed another man in a North Carolina Wal-Mart, which courts have since ruled was in self-defense. In a more viral and less violent event earlier this year, he absolutely beat the shit out of a rival rapper who dared taunt him in a Louis Vuitton store. There's also a video out there of him clocking a fan while performing, knocking dude over between bars.
On paper, these two sides of DaBaby seem out of step with each other. If you see DaBaby in public, is he going to crack a joke or throw a punch? Comedians and gangsters are two very different fixtures in our culture, but it's not like they've never overlapped before. You ever seen Goodfellas?
In the 1990 mafia classic, Joe Pesci's character, Tommy DeVito, is both the most wise-cracking dude in the gang and the most trigger-happy. When you're around him, the situation's liable to go from uproarious laughter to bouts of gunfire in the drop of a hat, as it does when the character Spider chooses to disrespect Tommy during a previously-good-natured hangout in the infamous scene above. In Goodfellas and other mob standards like The Godfather and The Sopranos, many times the scariest guys are also the funniest ones.
This phenomenon's not just limited to film though— we've seen plenty of it in hip hop. While the majority of the most notorious so-called gangster rappers— Scarface, The Game, Dr. Dre, Big L, everyone on Griselda, Kevin Gates, to name a random few— are rarely even seen cracking a smile, let alone a joke, there are plenty who do. Just look what the man who's often credited with creating gangster rap, Ice-T, spends his days tweeting. Look at what Snoop Dogg— who lest we forget, had a pending murder case similar to DaBaby's in 1993— is doing on GGN these days. 50 Cent was once legendary for getting shot nine times; now he's best known as an Instagram comedian. As anyone who's seen a slasher flick or Tarantino movie knows, violence and comedy aren't mutually exclusive entities.
DaBaby at the HNHH office - image by HNHH
In DaBaby's case, his newfound humor and notoriety have given his career a noticeable boost. Obviously, he's a phenomenal rapper (just watch his XXL Freshman freestyle if you don't believe me), but he's been rapping for over five years now, and just blew up at the beginning of 2019. Previously, his biggest claim to fame was making a decent-but-unremarkable ode to his local NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, as they were on the verge of being Super Bowl bound at the end of 2015. On it, he showed a small sliver of his sense of humor, and on other tracks from that period, he showed his tough side. But they were half measures— he didn't lean fully into either one.
It takes confidence to be funny, and it takes even more confidence to be tough. But maybe it's easier to be funny if you know you can cold clock your audience; maybe humor offers an escape from a violent past.