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After a frenetic year, the Grammy-nominated star is the hottest rapper in the US. He talks about his quest to be the best and the forces that could bring him down

Its impossible to know where to focus your attention. On the six members of Jabbawockeez, the dance troupe wriggling on stage like breakdancing stormtroopers? The wobbling pair of blowup kewpie dolls? Or maybe the man with DaBoy Baby carved in Carolina blue script on his chest?

Then DaBabys track, Bop, explodes from the loudspeakers and a new sensory assault begins: backflipping dancers in black Billion Dollar Baby tracksuits; synchronised routines from people in Nasa flight outfits; a dancer with red booty shorts who bounces on her head, splits her legs akimbo and twerks.

DaBaby performs during the 2019 Rolling Loud festival at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

We are at Rolling Loud in Los Angeles, the worlds largest travelling rap festival, held in the teeming stadium car park of the Los Angeles football club. Nearly all of the genres biggest names are here, from Young Thug to Future, A$AP Rocky to Lil Uzi Vert. Yet the most claustrophobic it gets all weekend is for a 28-year-old rapper from Charlotte, North Carolina, who practically none of the 55,000 attendees had even heard of at this time last year. And despite the frenetic chaos and Wheres Wally panorama, your attention ultimately fixates on the ringleader at the centre of this circus, the PT Barnum of bop, DaBaby.

I like pushing the envelope and being creative, he tells me the next day. Im a high-level performer [its about] how I can take it to another level. I try not to be complacent in my music or with my performances. I gotta keep it fresh and rock out.

In the past 12 months, DaBaby has become the hottest rapper in the US. He has released two acclaimed albums, with the latest, Kirk (his full name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk), debuting at No 1 in September. Four singles reached the Top 10 Suge, Bop, Intro, and his assist on Post Malones Enemies with the biggest, Suge, up for two Grammys this month. Another 18 songs crashed the charts, including collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Migos and J Cole. Not bad for a new rapper from a mid-sized US city with no previously notable hip-hop scene, who as recently as 2017 was walking around SXSW festival in an adult nappy demanding that people pay attention to him (under his old alias, Baby Jesus). If DaBaby isnt the best rapper alive, hes at least in the conversation.

Yet, he also has a darker streak that inevitably shrouds discussions about him: most infamously, the late-2018 incident when DaBaby was involved in an incident when a 19-year old was killed in a North Carolina Walmart, while DaBaby was shopping with his then one-year-old daughter, her mother and her mothers five-year-old son from a previous relationship. He claimed in an online video to have acted in self-defence after a gun was pulled on him and the state ultimately dropped charges against the rapper for carrying a concealed weapon.

To understand his meteoric rise it helps to see DaBaby in his element. A 5ft 8in speedball, he hurtles across the Rolling Loud stage like a basketball player. He raps at whiplash speeds, as if he is plugged into a power grid, and attempts to plough through the packed crowd. Then he basks in the moment of triumph and screams: Its pandemonium!

DaBaby is heir to the lineage of Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Missy Elliott and Ludacris virtuosic inventive rap stylists unafraid to make videos full of funny parodies and rubber-faced camera goofs but there is another side to him, that I only witness briefly: the trash-talking hustler who grew up poor.

DaBaby: I gotta keep it fresh and rock out Photograph: Cooper Neill/Getty Images

It is the night after Rolling Loud, inside Snoop Doggs studio compound in Inglewood, California. Upstairs in the game room decorated with silkscreens of the Las Vegas skyline and the Rat Pack DaBaby is running the dice table, recklessly shaking a rattan craps stick.

I was doing this when I was pissing in the bed, he smirks to six friends gathered around the blue felt table. He is wearing a purplish luxury hoodie-and-sweats combo. A half-smoked blunt dangles from his mouth. Ive been doing this way longer than rapping,he adds. I used to do it like this up against the wall! He mimes throwing the dice into a mural of Casino.

There are things that DaBaby deems off-limits in interviews, namely, what he did between dropping out of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and starting to take rap seriously five or so years ago. It is filed euphemistically as stuff done in the streets. If you accept his early mixtapes as confession, there is plenty of drug-dealer talk, but watching this side of DaBaby you understand the hustler streak, the confidence and ability to make money, and the shrewd wariness that allowed him to stay alive and out of jail.

After a few minutes, his manager Arnold Taylor interrupts to tell him: We got work to do. Silently tossing the dice over his right shoulder, DaBaby instantly changes his facial expression from carnivorous glee to a solemnity thats largely absent from his recorded output. To listen to a DaBaby record, you might assume that his life was circumscribed by hedonism, violence and the desire to be the best rapper alive. But there is also a meticulousness to the way he moves.

Ive studied the greats, DaBaby says. He leans back on an overstuffed couch, his voice pitched to a near-whisper, the exhaustion of the past 12 months hitting the moment he finally slows down. I studied people like Future, Lil Wayne and Kanye, who came up and consistently progressed. Ive studied all the genius marketers throughout the rap game. I borrow from anybody with something to offer.

I never studied marketing, he adds, his eyes half-closed. Ive just always been a hustler. I didnt even have a major decided at college. I only went to school for my parents.

Even before he was famous, DaBaby acted like he was, rolling 50 deep in branded outfits to the Charlotte clubs. The idea of being a locally famous rapper was never real to me. I was immediately trying to get on the same charts as Drake. His career received a massive boost when he signed to Arnold Taylor, the president of South Coast Music, the biggest radio promoter in the state, who was instrumental in the early rise of southern rap stars including Yo Gotti and Future.

We wanted to show his fun side but also the street side, says Taylor, who guided DaBaby from a gifted but obscure regional street rapper to a major label bidding war that ended with a seven-figure deal from Interscope. Were from the hood and are serious and real, but at the end of the day, that dont get you anywhere. He can be a worldwide artist; he can act and do comedy. He can really spit with the best of them, but he can also make songs. Some spitters cant make songs.

In this sense, DaBaby reflects an anachronistic approach to the rap game. If the charts are filled with opiated threnodies about addiction and sadness, he eschews singing in favour of raps that could take your head off (I cant sing, but Ill hit some notes here and there), usually starting the second the beat hits. It helps that he gets beats from his nascent fellow Carolina star, JetsonMade, whose productions blend post-trap grit with a springy trampoline bounce.

His most poignant song, Intro, from Kirk, intersects with another less-seen side of DaBaby: the devoted family man. Its a tribute to his father, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, who died the same week that his son reached No 1 in the charts. And in conversation, DaBabys eyes most readily light up when talking about his love for his father and mother (who worked for a finance company), his older brothers and his young daughter. When I ask what he would be doing today if he didnt have any work responsibilities, he immediately answers: Whatever my daughter wants to do. Shes bright and brilliant. Im just blessed to be able to establish a path for her before she even knows how to tie her shoe.

Yet he doesnt seem to have escaped his previous life entirely. Last month, Charlotte police cited him for marijuana possession and resisting arrest, overshadowing the earlier part of the day where he had given out hundreds of Christmas toys to underprivileged families; DaBaby claimed the arrest was illegal and tweeted: Black Excellence right here in our own city, & they hate it. Earlier this week, authorities detained and questioned DaBaby in Miami in connection with a robbery investigation, and later arrested him after police discovered an outstanding warrant pertaining to a battery charge in Texas. His team declined to comment on the Miami arrest, but he took to Instagram to tell people to please stop talking to me about that weak ass 48 hours I spent in jail and that failed attempt to break my spirits and interrupt the path Im taking to my God given success.

Back in that room in Inglewood last month, he was similarly undeterred in his plans for world domination. Im just a quick learner I learned to cook watching the cooking channel, he says. There are plans to act, the growth of his Billion Dollar Baby label, and vague ambitions about using his platform for real change. When I ask where he thinks he will be in five years, he says that is way too far ahead for him to think about. Fifty years? He beams. Fifty years, man? I better be damn near the president of the United States.

When the time is up, DaBaby thanks me then excuses himself to go back upstairs. He has been so busy that there has been no time to record, but for the next few hours he has Snoops studio all to himself. I ask Taylor and his representatives if its possible to watch him make a song or two. It becomes quickly clear that it might not be the best idea. Its probably for the best, Taylor tells me politely. DaBaby doesnt really like surprises.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/10/dababy-boom-controversial-rapper-taking-over-america