Superstar collaborations between two platinum rappers are a dime a dozen since Drake and Future linked for What a Time to Be Alive in 2015. Still, a summit with Lil Durk and Lil Baby carries a special sense of anticipation. Peaking in critical and commercial acclaim, both seem ready for a mainstream ubiquity beyond the melodic and street rap fans that eagerly absorb their work.
You could argue that Lil Baby is already there – his 2020 album My Turn landed on numerous best-of lists, and his performance of his socially-minded (if slightly maudlin) single “The Bigger Picture” at the Grammys in March was widely shared online (and caused some controversy). Meanwhile, Lil Durk has survived numerous career and legal twists since breaking out with his ferocious “L’s Anthem” in 2012. It’s remarkable that he’s grown into a true comer, with last year’s Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 peaking at number 2 on the Billboard charts. Lil Baby and Lil Durk clearly have the Apple and Spotify playlists on lock. But turn on an iHeart radio station and you may be more likely to hear Lil Baby’s feature on the late Pop Smoke’s “For the Night” or Lil Durk on Drake’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” than one of their own headlining tracks.
Given the stakes for making the leap from 1B status to franchise players, it seems odd that the duo’s The Voice of the Heroes doesn’t make a firmer claim for attention. Maybe it’s the nature of these increasingly common Marvel Team-Up-styled projects: one week it might be Future and Lil Uzi Vert, the next week it’s YG and Mozzy. (To be fair, Lil Baby and Gunna’s 2018 Drip Harder was certainly a superior event.) Perhaps it will just take time for these songs to worm their way into our collective heads. Given how much music both men produce – Lil Durk has dropped four projects in the past 13 months, while Lil Baby is a bit more selective – the inclination may be to bop The Voice of the Heroes for a week or two and move on to the next thing.
“I wasn’t trying to be no idol,” harmonizes Lil Baby on the opening title track. It finds the duo taking the stage like they’re kicking off a starry concert. “And I’m just getting started, relax, wait ‘til I warm up,” he adds. Meanwhile, Lil Durk focuses on his troubled life, from past stints in prison to carrying his “stick” wherever he goes, and the sex and drugs he consumes. The two bring clear and subtle contrasts. Lil Baby prefers Adderall. Lil Durk likes “perkys.” Lil Baby has a gravelly voice that he uses with surprising deftness. It’s a powerful brand that’s impossible to mistake for anyone else’s. Lil Durk’s isn’t as distinct, but he can shift from a world-weary melody to a sharp and aggressive Chiraq tone, the equivalent of suddenly pulling on a ski mask.
The first few tracks go hard. On “2040,” the duo delivers verses in double-time over a Flex OTB and Forever Rollin beat reminiscent of a late Aughts Dirty South banger, while “Hats Off” find them joining Travis Scott over a dramatic and infectious synthwave trap rhythm. For “Who I Want,” Lil Baby offers his perspective on love. “You can’t just pop out and say you’re the hero, you gotta put on a cape and save the day,” he raps. “Man of My Word” boasts plenty of stick talk and staccato keyboard punches as Lil Durk riffs, “You gotta be a killer just to hang with us.”
But despite occasional and welcome cameos from Meek Mill, Young Thug and Rod Wave, The Voice of the Heroes eventually loses its propulsion. Whether intentionally or not, the producers – London on da Track, Wheezy, Turbo and a host of others – ladle computer washes and keyboards over the album’s latter half, and the sentimental tone doesn’t quite fit Durk and Baby’s brooding flows. Some cuts have strong hooks and others don’t, though the duo’s chant of “I need medical” on “Medical” stands out. Eventually, it starts to sound like an 18-track blowout that’s taking a bit too long to wrap up.
All in all, The Voice of the Heroes isn’t bad. Lil Durk and Lil Baby will continue on their respective paths. Maybe they’ll make a sequel if this sells well. But both have gotten close enough to the crown to realize that there’s more to the rap game than simply feeding the streets.