It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when news of the joint Lil Baby and Lil Durk album The Voice of the Heroes materialized in the popular consciousness, but producer Touch of Trent remembers exactly where he was when he found out.
“It was the end of March, it might’ve been March 27. Durk had actually sent me a voice message and was like, ‘Yo, I need 15 beats from you for me and Baby because we’re getting ready to do this collab project,’” he recalls. “So I ended up making those in a day and a half. I didn’t know when they were gonna start recording, so I really wanted to get ‘em out. I was still taking my time, but I definitely had to stay up all night.”
Trent is one of several beatmakers to help craft the sound on the much-anticipated collaborative album between two of the biggest street rappers in the world right now. And the album clearly lives up to the hype, earning a No. 1 spot on the RS charts in its opening week. While Baby and Durk have an undeniable appeal, the record is indebted to the work of the producers who translated the pair’s vision into reality.
Trent, a producer at Durk’s OTF label, came into the rapper’s orbit through Chicago rapper Booka600, who took a chance on the Houston native and invited him out to Atlanta to record with him and Durk. Trent says that by the time he got back to Texas, they had already sent a contract for him to join the label. He’s currently working with Booka on his upcoming album and says that he and Durk are constantly pushing each other to stretch their creative limits, including lately incorporating new types of samples.
“At this point, I’ve been working with Durk for so long that I just know when I hear something, ‘This is for Durk. Durk’ll go crazy on this,’” Trent says. “Whether it’s some of the harder stuff with like, him and [King] Von, or whether it’s “All Love” or “Viral Moment.”“
In fact, most of the producers on The Voice of the Heroes have a history working with either Lil Baby, Lil Durk, or both. Wheezy, Turbo, and ChiChi have all worked on a handful of projects with Baby, and Touch of Trent with Durk. London on da Track and ATL Jacob are at the middle of the Venn diagram, having contributed to various projects for both artists.
“They rap about whatever they go through, which a lot of rappers do, but they actually show it, too. People be excited like, ‘How is he gonna respond to this in the songs?’” says ATL Jacob. “Like when Baby was going through the stuff with his baby mama and it was all over the blogs, he did a freestyle about it and the freestyle went crazy.”
Unsurprisingly for two prolific artists, ChiChi says the New York and Atlanta sessions for Voice of the Heroes were marathons, with large crews from OTF and Lil Baby’s 4PF crew in attendance. According to Jacob, both are known to freestyle and prefer to go back and punch-in vocals after an initial take.
But there are some differences in their approaches, too.
“Baby is very picky with beats. We can go through 100 beats, he might pick one, even if the beats [are] hard, because he’s all about a specific vibe that he’s on,” Jacob explains. “But then with Durk, if the beat is hard, he’s gonna rap on it. Baby can record a couple of days, go catch a vibe, and come up with new ideas and then go record again a week later. Durk can record every day…Neither is bad. It’s just how they work separately.”
Voice of the Heroes doesn’t see Baby or Durk necessarily reinventing the wheel. A few tracks — like the Young Thug-centric “Up The Side” and the awkwardly romantic “Please” — could have been left on the cutting room floor. But all three producers stressed how much they wanted to give the duo something fresh to work with. Something that could highlight new sides of them both. Overall, they succeed.
“I wanted the bounce to be different,” says ChiChi, who worked on “How It Feels,” “If You Want To,” and “Hats Off” with Travis Scott. “Everybody already is making the same beats for Lil Baby, so somebody’s gotta come different.”
Jacob had a similar philosophy for “Bruised Up,” the album’s somber closer that sees Durk’s voice heavy with the loss of loved ones, and Baby rapping in unnerving detail about the failures of the U.S. carceral system. “If you ever go to prison, buy a knife before you buy a phone / Got caught up in the system, ain’t have life, but he ain’t make it home / That’s crazy, got killed in the place that was ‘posed to save him,” he warns.
Jacob, whose beats often begin with him sitting down at the piano, wanted to experiment with some new chord progressions for the rappers. The song is one of the best on the album in terms of showcasing their complementary skill sets, as Durk’s soulful crooning on the hook leads artfully into Baby’s part. “‘Bruised Up’ is just perfect the way Baby came in. It was like a perfect cartwheel into Baby’s verse,” Jacob says.
The production on Voice of the Heroes differentiates itself from the jump thanks to Trent’s work on the album’s title track and lead single. After learning Baby and Durk were going to make the record, Trent reached out to several of his favorite loop makers and found a particularly striking and ethereal children’s choir sound from the sample maker Haze. He thought it fit, not only with the title but also with its deeper themes around inspiring youth in neighborhoods like where the two superstar rappers grew up.
“I don’t ever go into it thinking ‘I’m automatically gonna be on this project because I’m so close with Durk,’” says Trent. “I always try to put my best foot forward and continue to give him the best production that I can possibly give.”
The Voice of the Heroes probably won’t go down as either artist’s magnum opus, but it’s markedly stronger and has far more replay value than most collaborative rap albums from recent years. That’s because of the varied production contexts Baby and Durk are placed in, and also because of their commitment to vivid storytelling, even when it doesn’t paint them in the perfect light.
“I done been to jail too many times, it feel like karma / Everywhere I sleep, I keep my stick, what I need an alarm for? / Police caught me in the cut, I had to walk out with my arms up / Ain’t too big to pray last minute, I put my palms up,” Durk raps wrenchingly on the third verse of the title track.
To Jacob, the honesty and fallibility in the two rappers’ bars are what has gotten them to this stratospheric level of success. For every hard-edged track like “Lying,” a punishing beat Jacob made in London with Baby in mind, there’s a “Bruised Up,” where these larger-than-life figures let their cracks show over gentler instrumentation.
“Even when they fuck up, they rap about their fuckups, too,” says Jacob. “They own up to it, and a lot of rappers don’t do that.”