Sada Baby Feature
Sada Baby / Sam Leviton

Sada Baby has a problem typically reserved for A-list pop stars: His dance moves are overshadowing his songwriting.

“I know that’s a gift and a curse with my energy and the dancing,” the Detroit rapper says over the phone while playing Borderlands. “They’ll block my lyrics.”

Sada’s energy has been key to building a wide-ranging fanbase, and many of his tracks have racked up millions of streams between Spotify and YouTube. His releases, most notably 2019’s Bartier Bounty mixtape, have been lauded by critics, and he’s become one of the most visible members of a Detroit scene filled with fresh talent and charismatic characters. From his breakout video — 2018’s “Bloxk Party” — to recent hits like “Aktivated” and “Slide,” Sada’s always in motion, busting out a Pee-wee Herman move here and there, enthusiastically playing air guitar, or shaking his shoulders to the prominent bass lines provided by producers like Helluva, Von Jose, and RJ Lamont.

But his sheer exuberance is backed up by an impressive skill set as both a rapper and a singer; that, and a near-infinite bag of references. From long-retired wrestlers to minor anime characters to basketball players you’re more likely to hear about in the dark corners of NBA Reddit than Sportscenter. “I think my palate is as complex as can be when it comes to anything,” he says. “Food, sports, my movie and TV selection, clothes, music, all of it.”

Sada Baby Feature
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Industry veteran Wayne “Wayno” Clark, vice president of A&R at Sada’s label Asylum Records, has been working with the prolific, unpredictable rhymer on his debut album, and he says the pair have forged a strong connection during long nights in the studio and wide-ranging FaceTime conversations. “He’s the epitome of not judging a book by its cover,” Clark says. “You see Sada, you see the dreads and the face tattoos, before he opens up his mouth you might assume certain things, but then when you actually get a chance to listen to the music it’s kind of wild, because you don’t get what you expect with him.”

Born Casada Sorrell, the 27-year-old musician grew up with dreams of playing basketball and jokes that he’s been destined for fame since he was a child. Sada recalls his grandma saying that his love of expensive food meant he’d grow up to be wealthy, and that the way he wrote his signature meant one day he might be a star. “The first time I signed my name in cursive, she was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got a famous motherfucker’s signature. You’re either going to be famous or a doctor with that signature,’” Sada reflects.

To be clear — Sada very much wants that fame and acclaim. “If it can be won, I want it,” he says, before rattling off a list of goals — a Grammy, a Nickelodeon Teen Choice Award, the WWE’s Intercontinental Championship belt — that sound perfectly reasonable coming out of his mouth. It’s in his desire to reach these heights that Sada proves a fascinating case study; he has the talent and personality to be a marquee name, but shows no interest in smoothing the rough edges which can make his music more of a guilty pleasure.

Songs like “Ape Shit” and “Dumbass” contain lyrics about violence and women that go beyond most rap’s fraught relationship with the topics. When asked about the friction between his mainstream aspirations and the content of some of his songs, Sada’s answer is pointed: “I would never, ever, in seven different lives, give a fuck. I ain’t gonna clean it up,” he says. “It’s what you can stomach and what you can’t stomach.”

Sada Baby Feature
Sada Baby / Sam Leviton

Whether the broader music world will accept Sada as he is will be a fascinating question, but he’s already a major success story in his hometown. He’s fully broken out of the Detroit bubble, one that is rich with eccentric talents like Rio Da Young OG, Teejayx6, and Shittyboyz Babytron, but has only produced a small handful of chart-topping acts.

Sada praises Big Sean, who made a point of reaching out and building a rapport with him, but offers sharp criticism of Eminem, albeit less on musical grounds and more because he feels the superstar hasn’t given back sufficiently and established a presence in the Motor City. “Do something in Detroit, do something for Detroit,” he says.

Sada isn’t a showy vocal technician like Eminem has become, but when he’s locked in, he’s not only one of the most inventive lyricists in modern hip-hop, but also a rapper equipped with a deep bag of flows and cadences, topped off with the charisma to make it all seem effortless. In one thrilling section of his freestyle on Kenny Beats’ web show The Cave, he’s rhyming nearly every word with the corresponding one in the next bar, and likening his hustling acumen to “Shaq in Orlando out the ‘bando.” In another, he’s referring to the weed he’s smoking as “boomshakalaka Okinawa lotus flower.” He says that phrase, like so many of his signature lines, simply came in a lightning strike of inspiration, and he knew he had to open the freestyle with a bang.

“I’m like, ‘Damn, that shit sounds sweet as hell in my head,’” he recalls. “I have no idea what that even looks like, but I know Okinawa is a place, niggas done heard ‘Boomshakalaka’ before, and lotus flower is some seductive shit, so I’m saying it.”

Sada is noted (and lightly ribbed online) for his project release strategy, another one of his unconventional qualities. He’s put out critically-acclaimed mixtapes that initially could only be heard through DatPiff (2020’s Brolik) and SoundCloud (2019’s Whoop Tape). He’s chafed at being asked why certain songs take longer to hit streaming platforms than others, and his latest compilation, Skuba Sada 2, is primarily made up of tracks that have already racked up millions of views on YouTube. Ultimately, Sada sees his unorthodox output as a case of following his intuition, not the preprogrammed industry path.

“I went through that phase where I trusted all the other people with my career instead of just trusting my instincts and my stomach,” he says. “My instincts and my stomach are what made me rap, what made me start doing this at all.”

Sada estimates that getting out of his first deal, which was with Tee Grizzley’s Grizzley Gang, lost him between $300,000 and $350,000, so he’s intent on doing things his own way this time around. That includes dropping a deluge of music videos, many directed by 22-year-old local wunderkind Jerry Production, which showcase Sada’s star persona (and the aforementioned dance moves).

“Sada will call me at midnight like, ‘Let’s shoot a video.’ I’ll be like, ‘Damn, I just laid down,’” says Jerry, who has also worked with Polo G, E-40, and Lil Durk. “But he brings the energy out of me. I know it’s never gonna be a boring, shitty video. I know he’s always pulling something out of his hat, so I say, ‘Fuck it, I’m on my way.’”

Sada Baby Feature
Sada Baby / Sam Leviton

Upon first blush, Sada’s visuals don’t appear meaningfully different than those of many up-and-coming rappers. Crowded recording studios become the setting for impromptu parties. Blunts are smoked, double cups are spilled, and shadowy street corners are populated by Sada and his friends. “Not to say that I don’t fuck with treatments, but I don’t fuck with treatments,” he says of his music video philosophy.

While Jerry’s a slick editor capable of filling static shots with life, he knows he doesn’t need to do much more than put his star center frame and let him take over. “He’s the show,” Jerry states, succinctly. And Sada says he doesn’t have to work particularly hard to stand out at this point; it’s what comes naturally.

“As far as me being like, ‘Bet, how am I gonna let these folks know I’m different today? What am I gonna do to let them know that I’m not just the ordinary rap nigga?’ I’m just not the ordinary rap nigga, that’s it,” Sada says.

Sada Baby Feature
Sada Baby / Sam Leviton

Wayno concurs, citing the viral video of Sada and his father singing Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” as proof. In addition to being a pretty credible cover, it’s another example of how the rapper can send the internet into hysterics by simply being himself. “The music does make [artists] stars, but we remember all these entertaining moments that they give us and I think Sada is just a great entertainer,” he says.

Sada is working on his debut album — along with a compilation project for the artists on his Big Squad label — but the higher stakes haven’t phased Detroit’s iconoclastic, irresistible new star. After all, the millions of plays and hundreds of thousands of fans he’s accrued along the way weren’t the objective from the beginning, simply a fortunate byproduct of him being himself.

“This is how I express myself. I’m good at it, and I’m going to do it how I do it,” Sada says. “I go in the studio and I make shit I want to hear. I make songs I want to make, how I want to hear me talking.”

Words by Grant Rindner