The Prodigal Producer: Austin’s Malik Baptiste Comes Home
Alchemical rapper returns from L.A. with 24-karat solo tracks
"They say minor setbacks pave the way for major comebacks," says legendary producer and mixtape DJ Don Cannon on "Starbirth," the opener for Malik Baptiste's upcoming project. Pedals/Petals, an ARTium Recordings/Mass Appeal mixtape, starts with the grandeur of horns and a church organ – a fitting prelude to a tale of a prodigal son's return.
But Pedals/Petals was once a different story, one of a conquering arrival. Initially called Starbirth, Baptiste foresaw a 24-karat gold-paved road. As soon as the Austinite received real exposure, he saw near-immediate successes producing for Ariana Grande, being introduced to heroes, and signing to No I.D.'s label.
"It's like, 'Oh, it's gonna be a breeze,' right?" Baptiste says of the brief golden period. "'It's happening for me. It's moving how I want.' Then things start to slow up. I start to run into these obstacles."
An old Chinese proverb says, "True gold fears no fire," which is to say, the real thing can withstand the trials that would chase Baptiste.
Born in 1996 to devout Christian parents from Grambling State University, Baptiste's origins reverberate with musical inspiration. The producer was firstborn to Alecia, an electrical engineer with basketball in her veins, and Ed Baptiste, an educator anchored at Hill Country Christian School. They allowed their son to indulge his music talents to the extent that Brian Malik Baptiste became Malik – the rapper, with critical acclaim in the Austin metro area.
The mononym generated his first two albums – 2015's The Principium and 2017's The Awakening (II) – which he's since curiously deleted from his life with no firm explanation when asked. But when 2018 single "Red" opened a series of doors leading to credits on Ariana Grande's 2018 release thank u, next and 2019's Sweetener, he was ready to venture away from the nest.
For Baptiste, in the micro, the trail converged at the doorstep of producer Tommy Brown and No I.D.'s mentorship, not only out of evident ability but also out of necessity. Edged with an admitted inclination toward the radical, Baptiste saw departure as the sole answer. Los Angeles represented what Austin either failed to nurture or actively shunned.
Reflecting on No Limit mogul Percy Miller's transition from the Bay back to New Orleans, Baptiste says, "[Master P] learned there, then took it home." His goal is similar: "I don't want to be a successful L.A. artist. I want to be a successful Austin artist."
Yet the relocation harbored its risks. Ed voiced his paternal fears: "I didn't want [Malik] to be in a situation where he was desperate, around people that would hurt or manipulate him. At the same time, as his father, seeing this young man, I knew I didn't have a right to say, 'You can't go.'"
Off he went in 2020 in his signature cherry-red 1985 Toyota MR2, which remains a source of identity. It's amazing he can fit his 6-foot-4-inch frame in the coupe. Though he initially shuttled between locations in L.A., he eventually found an apartment. Baptiste grew closer to No I.D. while also working on successful projects with noted Atlanta duo EARTHGANG, Chicago native Valee, and R&B vocalist Fana Hues.
But life's challenges quickly ensued, including the usual financial pressures. Baptiste received a raw education about the industry's realities. The first lesson is that beyond sheer talent lies the necessity of capital to nurture it. The second, and arguably more important: You must always be selling yourself.
"I don't want to just walk into a room and be like, 'Hey, yo, I'm important because I work with this artist,' and kind of throw names around," he says. "But the other side is that's part of the game. You say you've done a couple of things, or you have this hidden medal or a certificate of, 'Okay, you can come into our world. We trust you now because these other people have trusted you.'"
Baptiste faced identity struggles; the artist in him was sometimes buried under production and networking demands. He was at a fork in the road with choices to make – choices mentor/collaborator Cannon saw coming. Via phone interview, he remarks on the artist Baptiste intends to be: "A rapper needs to find his comfort zone."
"I [was] grateful for this opportunity, but I'm a solo artist, which is my main passion," says Baptiste, recalling his decision process. "I didn't want just to be a producer, and I don't wanna be known as [only] a producer. So a big part of that was accepting, like, 'Okay, but if I'm gonna produce right now, I need to put all my focus into that.' Because I'm competing with other people who only produce."
Mind made up, Baptiste decided it was time to go home.
"Maybe I ain't pushing hard enough/ Spinning my wheels, I hate how I'm stuck," an Auto-Tuned Baptiste sings on the mixtape's final track, the solemn, shimmering "Petals." It's a realization of a temporary stall-out, a recentering, but never a defeat.
Baptiste emerged an alchemist from his 2½-year sojourn in January, scathed but with his unwavering conviction still intact. His artistry remains and is augmented by life's lessons – one of them being the requirement of a team to lighten the load. Working alongside creative/musical multihyphenates Dawson Carroll, Deezie Brown, and Hailey Orion in a group called GODWHISTLE, they appear prepared to pave the golden road themselves.
"The only way is to take a step back and figure out who the meal ticket is," the ultra-talented Brown puts it candidly. "It is cool to see four artists come together and say, 'All right, Malik is up.'"
All the fire channeled into Pedals/Petals, due for release this fall. The mixtape results from a previous body of work Baptiste had no choice but to recalibrate. Conditions and realities had changed. Experiences – and Cannon's "minor setbacks" from the first line of track one – dictated alterations. The truths once penned for an intended prelude to an official ARTium debut album had evolved.
"It was like, 'I'm about to put a lie out here,'" Baptiste admits of the never-to-be-heard iteration. "I [realized] I think I'm this." He emphasizes this in the same way the Jerry Maguire character Rod Tidwell explains the notion of "quan."
"And I'm not this right now," Baptiste says. "So let me use my real superpower – vulnerability, telling the truth."