by Raghav Raj
[originally published February 2022]
Despite the constant, half-hearted insistence that there’s a bright future ahead, right now’s a pretty bleak time for professional sports in Detroit. The Lions, as always, are in some sort of freefall. Their star QB left this past offseason to immediately win a Super Bowl with Los Angeles; the Lions, on the other hand, were the second-worst team in the league, posting a dismal 3-13-1 record. The Tigers and Red Wings, two franchises whose teams showed some glimpses of hope in the early 2010’s before ultimately squandering all their talent, haven’t reached the postseason since their respective 2015 seasons. The Pistons haven’t won an actual playoff game in 13 years; as of writing, they’re currently one game away from dead last in the Eastern Conference.
I say all this not to rub salt in the wounds of the Detroit faithful (sorry guys), but to emphasize the extent to which Michigan rapper BabyTron’s music serves as a sort of revisionist history. If you try to piece together a picture of Detroit from the 21-year-old hellion’s slick, smooth-talking rapid-fire braggadocio, you’d probably think that it’s Championship City. His new album, Megatron, borrows the nickname of Calvin Johnson, the Hall-of-Fame Lions wideout known for his freakish physicality and his unreal playmaking abilities; though he may be a scrawny guy with a dirt-stache and a haircut that kinda makes him look like Drake Bell (his words), Tron’s athleticism on the mic is often just as breathtaking.
On Megatron, much like a prime Calvin Johnson, he’s pretty much unstoppable. Tron’s raps, undeniably, are a force unto themselves. They bob and weave between pop-cultural ephemera, elaborate scam strategies, and seas of double cups, zigzagging through bouncing 808s and colorful samples with dry, ruthless precision. His off-kilter flow sounds perfectly at home on any beat he hops on (for proof, listen to off-album cuts “Prince of the Mitten” and “King of the Galaxy,” two songs released on Youtube earlier this year with 39 combined beat switches between them). Even over 23 tracks, on an album that stretches just past the hour mark, BabyTron’s barrage of bars never gets boring.
It helps that these are some of the tightest beats he’s ever hopped on. After having rapped over the Harry Potter music for Bin Reaper 2’s opening track, his affinity for John Williams soundtracks continues here; “The Lost World” has Tron essentially in conversation with producer Danny G’s booming revamp of the entire Jurassic Park soundtrack, a breathless volley of raps that coasts between soaring horns, tense string work, and clattering percussion. On “Extra Butter,” he’s effortless over Mark A’s chop of the Bernie Mac Show theme, deadpanning references to Rocky and Rajon Rondo in the same breath he’s making fun of you for not having a car.
Even when he’s rapping on a normal beat, no one’s touching his pristine shit-talk. The album kicks off with “Letter to Cornelius,” with Tron addressing cornballs and haters; purely on a rhythmic level, listening to a bar like “Had to play the Faygo off a bag of Better Made/shit, I threw a stack up and made the weather change” unfold is astounding, a pitter-patter of internal rhymes that sounds even better over a mournful horn sample. On “Cobra Kai,” he’s firmly in pocket, rattling off lines about VLONE, Jeezy, and Call Of Duty, calling himself “Tron Wilkes Booth” as a 80’s synth pop sample unravels. The beat on “6 Star Wanted Level” practically morphs around him, finding a sweet spot between soulful vocals and menacing piano as Tron boasts about everything, from the quality of his weed, to how he got kicked out of recess as a kid.
It’s not entirely an individual display; the guests here aren’t his usual compatriots, but Tron’s excellent curatorial spirit still manages to keep Megatron intact as a coherent whole. On “Stupid,” GlockBoyz TeeJaee’s ice-cold bars play a nice counterpoint to Tron’s lyrical detours, anchoring the bass-heavy, “Wack Jumper”-esque beat to the Earth. Even better is “Chess Players,” where Tron and SOBxRBE’s Daboii team up to absolutely tear down the Southside Rich beat, a piano arpeggio that sounds as good with Daboii’s menacing bite as it does with Tron’s careening flow. And though GTP DaiDoe’s flow is perhaps far too drowsy for a song called “Huge Lifestyle 2,” Tron fills the sparse piano warbles with enough confidence to make up for them both.
The best songs on Megatron find Tron firmly in his comfort zone. “Crocs & Wock” is maybe the most quintessential Tron beat here, a skittering blast of tinny synth samples. It’s an ideal platform for his incessant flexing — about the ice on his neck, his thousand-dollar sneakers, the cards he’s scamming, the Backwoods he’s smoking, the drugs he’s mixing, the cash he’s raking in. On “10 Toes Wherever,” one of the more densely allusive cuts,Tron references enough basketball players to put an all-star starting five on the court. With a corrosive bassline, it creeps like a Hellcat on the Detroit streets, a prowling, potent display of flexing and trash-talking.
Then there’s “Jerry Rice,” which takes the BabyTron formula and sublimates it into a three-minute morsel of unmitigated brilliance. On an album like Megatron, a showcase of excellent production from start to finish, Machu’s beat on “Jerry Rice” stands out, gleaming like a jewel. Anchored by a slick saxophone riff, the bounce of its Detroit-style drum programming is transformed into something opulently suave; Tron, in turn, proceeds to eat this beat alive, delivering a potent, breathlessly witty string of shit-talk. In ways only he could ever really do, he manages to weave topics like Fairly Odd Parents, Tristan Thompson, and Ice Cube into a relentless string of disses, offering non-sequiturs like “brodie pulled up with a long clip like a movie scene” before going back to counting his cash. Like most of BabyTron’s best work, it’s funny, but also deadly serious — a balance he strikes so effortlessly that it makes my head spin.