In February, Atlanta introduced us to its new Holy Trinity. Young Thug was the Father. Gunna, a new signee to Thug’s Young Stoner Label who is all about high fashion—otherwise known as the “drip,” a term turned into gospel on his Drip Season mixtapes—was the Son. Lil Baby became the Holy Spirit, a master of choppy melodies that set fire to Quality Control’s roster, with his string of hustle-centric Harder Than projects.
Both Baby and Gunna’s ascents have been intertwined with Thug’s since the beginning. Gunna explicitly modeled himself as a slimey successor to Thug. He considered his sound a “hood melody,” a composite of the tales from his College Park upbringing and luxury brand name-drops. Baby, who started rapping two years after Gunna, had no blueprint. He was a reluctant rapper Coach K and Pee dragged in the studio shortly after he was released from prison in 2017. His first mixtape, Perfect Timing, was made months after serving a two-year stint in prison for gun and drug charges. Gunna embraced Baby early in his career, appearing on Perfect Timing and Too Hard, and even taught Baby how to rap. “When I say basics, I mean the real deal—how to record, you gotta go back and do your ad-libs. The simplest thing: how to save a song and send it to my phone,” Baby told Rolling Stone. Together, the pair brings promise to a newer generation of rappers, one that doesn’t rely on arbitrary monikers or trolling to harness a social media following.
“Oh Okay,” a single from Gunna's Drip Season 3, was this new trio's coronation where they layered extravagant melodies over the slow pluck of a guitar. The combination sounded eerily cohesive; as friends often do, they seemed to finish each other’s sentences. But in the months since, it’s become clear that Gunna and Baby didn’t need to depend on their association with Thug. Between the two of them, in only two years, they’ve released nine projects that garnered them a steady amount of buzz and a reputation as the new faces of Atlanta rap. Nonetheless, Thug, who has been friends with both of them before they attracted attention, has to this point helped guide their presence together on record as an architect of the melody-driven sound they’ve adopted. Gunna and Lil Baby's budding friendship produced a series of collaborations (“Sold Out Dates,” “Throwing Shade”) without Thugger, but would the Atlanta rookies be able to pull it off on a complete project?
Drip Harder, Gunna and Lil Baby’s debut new and first joint project, should have been the culmination of the best parts of each rapper. But with three producers, two leads, and a handful of features, the tape feels a little crowded. Lil Durk and NAV join the duo on opener “Off White VLONE,” and it’s a strange way to set the tone for such a highly anticipated project. Durk and NAV are given a lot of space to horse around, and they do, making wisecracks about Ugg boots and oral sex. Meanwhile, Gunna and Baby play the background on their own intro track, a move that seems purposeful on their part. “I never ball hog, I throw my niggas alley oops,” Lil Baby tweeted the day before the project’s release. The trouble is, though, that neither Baby or Gunna take charge on Drip Harder.
On their own, they’ve each offered flashes of brilliance—verses and approaches that earn the acclaim that’s been bestowed on them. In 2016, Gunna made his first appearance in the rap game on Thug’s “Floyd Mayweather.” Amid cameos from Travis Scott and Gucci Mane, the still relatively unknown rapper established his style in a way that felt fitting for a song named for a braggadocious boxer: flashy, nimble flows draped in drip. Since then he’s become comfortable leaning on the dreamy melodies of his friends or wedging extra words into bars. For his verse on Scott’s ASTROWORLD, his biggest mainstream look to date, he downright sails over the strings of “YOSEMITE,” in a flow that’s so precise that it feels wrong when Travis Scott mirrors his cadence. It was proof that he understood his greatest skill, the thing that allows him to be a chameleon in Atlanta's new soundscape, that few can manipulate their voices quite like he can.
Baby pays more attention to content, rather than form, weaving vignettes of his past into most of his catalog. Harder Than Hard’s “My Dawg” sported a highly addictive hook that was poised for radio, but it was on his fourth mixtape of 2017, Too Hard, where Baby found his sweet spot. “We came from the bottom we used to wear each other’s clothes,” he raps on “Freestyle.” Baby could boast about his money, cars, and women, but is best when he’s recounting what survival meant for him before the record deal. So when they’re together, Baby and Gunna offer a unique proposition; they’re the yin and yang of Atlanta’s new class of rap, each filling in the gaps in each others thematic concerns. Gunna can bring the glitz, and Baby the gravitas, but that isn’t exactly how it plays out on Drip Harder.
The two celebrated major milestones in their career before announcing Drip Harder in September. Gunna’s ASTROWORLD verse was barely a month old and Baby scored his first Top 10 Hot 100 song with “Yes Indeed.” Expectations were high after making more than a handful of collaborations together and releasing their best projects months apart. The disparities between songs ahead of Drip Harder (“Our Year,” “Money Forever,”) is that they two are mindful of their placement in each other’s catalog. They fell into a rhythm as featured artists on each other’s records. Drip Harder feels more like a Gunna project with appearances by Lil Baby. Baby leads four songs to Gunna’s six, (not to mention three tracks with features, wherein both take a backseat to more practiced guests). On Gunna's songs, Baby usually only turns up for one verse (and on "Seals Pills" Gunna cuts into that verse anyway). This wouldn't ordinarily be a huge issue, there's obviously nothing that says a collaborative project has to have a 50-50 split, but because the pair work so well together, when the balance is shifted it throws off the dynamic that's made them so striking together. They seem to treat the record as a bit of a testing ground, swerving into each other’s lanes, but that means sacrificing a bit of their strengths each time they do. When Gunna deviates from his drip-laden lyrics, it’s less cogent; When Baby departs from street rap, it’s less resonant. “Underdog” finds Gunna retreating from the luxe life, using Baby instead to boast about a G Wagon too big to fit in a garage. Ultimately its fine, of course rising rappers contain multitudes, but because of how well they've played together in the past, you can't help but wonder why they sought to shake up the formula on moments like this.
Still, when Gunna and Baby get it right, it's rousing, such as on the lively lead single "Drip Too Hard." “Drip too hard, don’t stand too close / You gon fuck around and drown trying to ride this wave,” Baby cries on the hook. There isn’t a song featuring just the two of them with a wave as swelling as “Drip Too Hard” across the project’s 39-minute runtime, but Drip Harder isn’t short of high points. The two find a stride on “I Am,” a track produced by Quay and led by Lil Baby. “Ran the money up, way up / Life ain’t sweet, ain’t no lay up,” Baby sings on the hook. It’s a flex, and a reminder of the heaviness of being alive, the ultimate promise of what Baby and Gunna can bring us together.
Baby and Gunna have two solo songs a piece, each of them a standout in its own right. Gunna’s “World is Yours” and “Style Stealer” are an expensive extension of his drip, with the former affirming that he even sleeps in designer duds. “Designer my cover / I drip in the bed,” he boasts. The latter is an observation of the ways in which rap has lost its originality. “I’m a big dripper, you a sound stealer,” Gunna raps. Baby’s contributions pick up where he left off on his last album, Harder Than Ever. “Close Friends” sounds like the prequel to the tale of a relationship going sour that he sang about on last year's “Leaked.” The wave motif from “Drip Too Hard” spills into “Deep End,” with Baby asserting that his competition is struggling to stay afloat. “He got his ratchet, no life jacket, ready to dive in / Lil homie thuggin’, he can’t even swim, he in the deep end,” he sings. But for all of their oceanic analogies, Gunna and Baby are only riding tsunamis when they allow more seasoned rappers, like Young Thug and Drake, to take control of the ship.
Thug’s voice slithers in the intro of “My Jeans,” and as Lil Baby comes in the first verse, it feels like an appropriate follow up to “Oh Okay.” Similar to their collaboration on Slime Language’s “Chanel,” “My Jeans” is seamless. Together, the Holy Trinity is without limitations. The three have a sixth sense for their positions in relation to each other. Thug was their secret ingredient on the Drip Season 3 single, and his presence evokes the same energy here. Additionally, both Baby and Gunna take more of a risk with their voices on “My Jeans”—and rightfully so, because you can’t appear on a track with a shapeshifter like Thug laying dormant. When Gunna sings, “I fell in love with Billy Jean / But YSL like Wu-Tang with that cream,” it’s the best he’s sounded on the entire project—and a complete shift from the rapper-turned-singer vibe he’s projected throughout his career. He’s laughed off claims that he’s a singer before, but he actually sounds like one on “My Jeans.”
Drake over Tay Keith’s menacing production, on the other hand, turn Baby and Gunna into antagonists on “Never Recover.” The Toronto rapper is the song’s ringleader, not thinking twice about the triplet flow he’s come to perfect over the years. The dynamic between the three feels much like little brothers following the oldest. Drake knows his role as the closer’s commander in a way that Gunna and Baby haven’t matured into yet. Instead of the sluggish flow he donned on “Yes Indeed,” Baby offers a series of chopped one-liners, culminating in a lyric that ultimately explains the transitional feeling of Drip Harder. “Don’t gotta drip, I can leave that to Gunna / Running this shit, only been out two summers,” he says. It’s a last-minute reminder that both Baby and Gunna are still just getting their start in a lot of ways—Drip Harder could still be just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.