On Saturday June 11, rapper Lil’ Baby, born Dominique Armani Jones, swooped down the red carpet at the world famous Beacon Theater, his two boisterous and bustling boy wonders (six-year-old Jason and three-year-old Loyal) in tow, for the world premiere of Untrapped: The Story of Lil’ Baby at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Founded in 2002 by iconic actor Robert De Niro to shake the city out of the cultural malaise that the Big Apple suffered in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center terror attacks, the Tribeca Film Festival has long been a welcoming launchpad for documentaries that seek to humanize rappers, many of whom are ostracized off general principle by society at large.
At its core, Untrapped illustrates Lil Baby’s rise from a novice emcee, his dedication to becoming better at his craft and his emergence as an emcee of merit that actually has some positive things to say. Featuring candid anecdotes from Hip Hop illuminates like Drake, Gunna and Young Thug, as well as Lil’ Baby’s beloved mother, Untrapped wants the viewer to see his evolution and chronicles Lil Baby’s super star trajectory.
Early in the film, we see long forgotten video snippets of Lil’ Baby when he was practically still a baby (around 9 years old), racing his beloved sisters up and down the block.
When those endearing images are juxtaposed against the backdrop of his unwillingness to be a rapper in the first place, as well as his well-known ties to ATL street life, viewers see a young man who finally listened to trusted voices of reason in his life, such as producers Pierre Thomas and Kevin Lee.
Directed by Karam Gill (Supervillain, Ice Cold), Untrapped also shows the love that Lil’ Baby showers upon his children. as well as the sting of disappointment that often was apparent in Lil’ Baby’s voice when he discussed growing up in a single parent household.
“I’ve known Coach (Kevin Lee) and Pee (Pierre Thomas) for years at this point. We’ve done things for City Girls and Migos and other artists,” Karam told HipHopDX on the red carpet. “He called me at 5 am and asked if we wanted to do this. It’s another job in our partnership, Quality Films and my company, MGX. We’ve done so many films over the years.”
“I think a lot of people in the documentary space get caught up in trying to make a point,” Gill said when asked what he believes is key to making a great documentary. “I think that, at the end of the day, people come home and put on a documentary because they want to be entertained.”
As was the case with so many documentaries that have highlighted rappers and urban culture in the past, Untrapped’s strength is its effort to put a human face on a young man who was long ago relegated as an irretrievable drug dealer and gangster.
Born into poverty, Lil’ Baby was ambiguous about his situation as a small child. However, as he grew in age, so too did his desire to acquire the trappings and bangles of wealth. In the Southwest Atlanta neighborhood that he called home, crime, poverty, gang violence and high incarceration rates were the norm.
For anyone to make it out of such circumstances is admirable. However, for Lil’ Baby, whose street popularity as a gangster and the fast money that comes with that lifestyle, the streets were his home.
It’a revealed that becoming a rapper wasn’t something Lil Baby wanted to do, but was eventually coaxed into after serving a two years sentence on drug and gun charges at 18-years-old.
In the documentary, Lil’ Baby’s hit “The Bigger Picture,” which he released after joining protests following the death of George Floyd, is presented as a key point in his evolution as an artist.
During a Q & A session that followed a screening of the film, COO of Quality Music and the film’s co-producer Kevin Lee, affectionately referred to as Coach K, said he was taken aback by the protest song when he first heard it.
“It was incredible. But he’s a great storyteller,” Lee said. “All he was doing was telling the story of his life and what was going on around him and all the young guys that were in the hood. He seen what was happening and he wanted to express it.”
Producer and mentor Pierre Thomas, aka Pee, seconded that notion.
“I’ve heard songs from a lot of artists talking about what’s going on in their town and it just didn’t click, no offense to anyone. This wasn’t a gimmick for him. I remember when he called me that morning like ‘Bro, I’m about to get ready to go out here with these people (to protest). I remember I was still in the house, scared of Coronavirus. A lot of people were dying at the time. And he was like, ‘I’m going out there with those people.’
“And when he came back he said he was gonna make a song. When he sent it to me I knew it was going to resonate with a lot of people. I had heard some of the other songs already but I knew this song was going to connect to the people better than any of those other songs out there.”
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Though Lil’ Baby had very little to say on the red carpet, he opened up a bit during the Q&A session, revealing that the first time he saw the complete film was just days earlier.
“The first time I seen it was this week. It made me drop a tear or two. It was around 5 o’clock in the morning. Me and two of the guys,” he said.
When asked if his evolution as an artist, growth as a person, and burgeoning superstardom were normal to him, the Atlanta rapper confided to those in attendance that he’s still not used to it.
“I still feel uncomfortable because, truthfully, this ain’t something I wanted to do. For a lot of people, they’ve been waiting for this moment their entire life. For me, I ain’t like that. When I finally got the moment, the moment was bigger than I had planned for.”
The film also prominently features childhood friends, Young Thug and Gunna, who were both indicted on racketeering and other organized crime related charges. Lil’ Marlo, Lil’ Baby’s best friend and labelmate who was killed in 2020, is also featured throughout the film.
Sincere, sweet and reflective with a triumphant ending, Untrapped just might help bring some understanding and hope to others who are in similar circumstances.
“A lot of times, people tell their stories about you when you’re 65 or 70 years old,” Thomas says matter-of-factly. “Why can’t we give him his flowers at the moment?”
Untrapped: The Story Of Lil Baby is scheduled to air on Amazon Prime Video in August 2022.