Bin Reaper 2, Michigan rapper BabyTron’s latest album, opens with an excerpt from Harry potter. On the project’s intro, aptly titled “Half-Blood Prince,” the 21-year-old MC is firmly in his lane, delivering head-spinning bars stuffed with pop culture references. “Scooby-Doo, hopping out of the van, will leave a mystery,” he recalls. “I should have gone to Hogwarts, I do witchcraft.”
It’s a great example of what BabyTron, born James Johnson, does so well, and why he has quietly become a fan favorite in the rap world. “I grew up watching Harry Potter, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I asked Danny G to make the beat and he came out of the fire and that was everything I had ever hoped for, ”he says on Zoom. “Same with the Star Wars beat on ‘Sith Lord’, it’s intros and outros.”
The 27-track ferry Reaper 2 is, on paper, a Halloween themed scrapbook. It serves as a formal follow-up to the 2019 Tron project, Garbage mower, and manages to maintain its creepy theme without feeling like a gimmick. And the project is part of a prolific rhythm of releases for the rapper. Just last year he released Pre-game, Back to the future, and Nash sleeves, all worthy of repeated listening, and also filled with jokes that will stop you in your tracks.
It seems that for BabyTron, rap is more like a sport. His raps are filled with basketball references, and he describes the latter project almost as if it were a sporting feat. “I have some signature beat switch songs out there. I have a song there with four different rhythm switches. It’s something different that not everyone hears, ”he says.
This change of pace for the gold medal he talks about comes on the album’s second track, aptly titled “Next Level”. On a sample of modulated soul superimposed on a hyperactive and jerky drums, Tron facilitates the work of the complexity of the first part. The bpm essentially doubles halfway through, around beat number two, before an electro sample reminiscent of the 80s infectious tube “AEIOU Sometimes Y” sends Tron into another beat. “I think it was the last song I recorded for the album,” he recalls. “I felt like something was missing from the album, so I said to my engineer, ‘Let’s do something crazy.’ We were playing beats and I was like, “The last four beats were so hard. I can’t choose one. So I want them all on the same song. ”
BabyTron’s selection of beats just pushes the home sport metaphor. You can’t imagine someone else rapping about whatever type of production they choose because it’s basically impossible. The fast, electro and techno beats that have become the rapper’s calling card sound like the rap equivalent of dunking on a 15-foot rim. Awesome if you can pull it off, and totally useless if you can’t. “I do it everyday. So, it’s definitely like the gym. Basketball, microphone, stand. Same thing.”
While definitely in a universe of his own, the sound of BabyTron is part of an ascending wave of Michigan state hip-hop. Lil Yachty, who appears on Tron’s new project, entered the scene earlier this year for his best project yet, Michigan Boy Boat. The region’s rap scene is teeming with southern hip-hop, if only in its attachment to a sort of raw musicality. Most of the beats BabyTron raps on, for example, are the kind of ’80s electro hits baby boomers assume kids ditched for autotuning. “I don’t know what it is, but I feel like we have the sound that everyone wants right now. Not necessarily me, or anyone in particular, just the state of Michigan as a whole, ”says BabyTron.
Tron tells me he only recently became aware of Detroit’s techno heritage. For him, it was just the sounds you heard everywhere, mixed with music from everywhere. “You might have a person who only raps to evil Detroit beats. And then you got me, doing the funky techno stuff, ”he says. “It’s just different bags here. That’s why I really feel like people are adjusting to Michigan music because it’s so much to listen to.
BabyTron started rapping in high school around the age of 17. He first started making waves alongside a group of his music-making classmates under the name Shitty Boyz. These outings, equally acrobatic displays of rap agility, earned the young MC a quietly voracious fan base. Even still, rap didn’t sound like a profession until, as Tron describes, “people at school started learning my lyrics and singing them to me, telling me to drop the music and shit “.
These early releases also earned BabyTron the “Rapper Scam” rating. He was part of a rising generation of MCs whose favorite criminal enterprise was scamming credit cards and various mobile payment apps. A Gen Z response to the hustle and bustle of the streets of yesteryear. “This is where I come from. Scam. So I’m still talking about it. It’s like an origin, it’s like me, I can’t change myself, ”he says. Yet the descriptor “Scam Rap” is woefully limited. Tron’s expertise covers everything from sports and old movies to finding inventive ways to let you know that your spouse doesn’t care much about you. The scam is only a small and diminishing fraction of his concerns.
“A lot of people who describe it as fraudulent rap really don’t understand anything else that’s going on in the music, I get the feeling. I could talk about scamming 5% of the song or 1% of the song or something like that and they still consider it rap scam, ”he adds. “I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a crook rapper. Especially with this album, there is a lot more to say about this album.
And rightly so. Despite its young age, BabyTron has firmly established itself as a voice to pay attention to. Kevin Durrant apparently follows him on Instagram, and stars like Jack Harlow and Big Sean count themselves as fans. And, for its part, BabyTron is focused on improvement. He’s already back in the studio preparing something new. “I keep trying to make my punchlines more and more crazy, and more and more songs. Maybe it’s four things that all go together in one line. That’s all I’m trying to do, ”he says.
Where there is apparently a formula for viral fame, BabyTron’s rise to power looks a lot more like the previous generation of rap greats. He’s already had a four-year career, having stepped into the game straight out of high school like Lebron, and ready to build.
“Like everything, it’s one step at a time, I’m not trying to skip any steps,” he says. “I’m taking the stairs, not the elevator.”