If there was one thing that I did not expect to follow Joey Bada$$’s debut studio album, B4.DA.$$, it is what I find myself holding now. The clear blue sky and sailing American flag are surprisingly fresh and airy, a stark contrast to the muddied cityscapes thrown over 1999, Summer Knights and B4.DA.$$. And whilst it’s tempting to rank this album against these projects, this cover perfectly embodies the change in Joey’s style - it’s hard to see this album as anything other than different. Dropping from B4.DA.$$’s 16 tracks to just 12, Al-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ marks a new stage for Joey, taking the diasporic and often chaotic focus of B4.DA.$$ and refining it into a single ideology, channelled through different perspectives and styles.
The waving American flag immediately sets the tone: this is an album about America. Even the title itself, an allusion to Ice Cube’s iconic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, establishes the record as such. But this parallel isn’t merely geographic – Bada$$’s record deals with many of the same issues as Cube’s classic work, raising questions as to how much has really changed in the 27 years since. Bada$$, across the album’s 49 minutes, provides us with his answer - little. Joey’s anger at this lack of change manifests itself immediately: as soon as the first words leave his mouth on GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA, he begins his verbal assault on America’s flaws.
To tackle these flaws then, it would seem natural for Bada$$ to resort to the lyrical boom-bap style that characterised his success within hip-hop, providing sharp and incisive commentary on tracks such as Paper Trail$. Whilst we see glimmers of this style towards the end of the record, for much of the album this is not the case. The release of Devastated, a 2016 single from Bada$$, drew much attention from critics, who were quick to dismiss the more radio-friendly production and delivery on the track. Devastated once again rears its head on AABA, alongside TEMPTATION, another track of what many are dubbing ‘pop-rap’. Despite the criticism first levelled at them, these tracks are once more different, and whilst boom-bap purists may regard them as inferior to Joey’s traditional blend of styles, they work in unison with tracks in Joey’s traditional style to create diversity, something that was arguably somewhat lacking on his previous efforts. This, combined with the focused anti-establishment message and new perspective, presents All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ as a change, and perhaps a growth, for Joey as an artist.
However, for all the vocal differences this new record presents us with, Bada$$’s technical prowess carries over from his previous work. Bada$$’s clever wordplay and multi-levelled rhyme schemes guide his bars, allowing AABA’s message to have particular resonance through unique methods of delivering his message. Of particular note is Bada$$’s use of intonation: on AABA, more than any of his previous works, Joey employs this to perfection, whether it be pronouncing “Namaste” as “Nah I’mma stay” in Y U DON’T LOVE ME? or “its shoes” as “issues” on the album’s opener.
Despite Bada$$’s voice keeping its trademark lyricism, its perspective has fundamentally changed. On AABA, we see a new tone, one of authority, creep into Joey’s voice. Referring to his audience as “boys and girls”, Joey presents himself as a moral authority, yet speaks to his audience in the way one would speak to a group of children. In the GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA’s first verse, Joey’s “let’s talk about it, take a minute, think it through” seems as if he doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend his message. Here Joey adds something new to the mix, a distrustfulness of his audience’s desire for change, an elevation of Joey above his listener to speak as an authority rather than an equal. Whilst Joey’s authoritative tone was seen in glimmers throughout 2015’s B4.DA.$$, AABA fully embraces it, positioning him as a social commentator and moral authority. To an extent, it works. The brutal images invoked throughout the record are powerful, and Joey’s cries to “wake up” and “raise hell” are rallying and awe-inspiring.
Elsewhere, Schoolboy Q’s verse on ROCKABYE BABY pushes forward Bada$$’s messages of systemic oppression, describing the destruction of family life through the American prison system and subjugation’s self-perpetuating nature. Styles P excels on SUPER PREDATOR, and Joey’s labelmates Kirk Knight and Nyck Caution flex with a braggadocious joint verse on RING THE ALARM, joined by a powerful bridge from Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy Darko. But perhaps the most impressive feature is that of J. Cole on LEGENDARY. Fully utilising the relaxed flow and introspective focus of his last record, Cole delivers a verse that seems almost confused, as if we are trapped within his mind as he flits from questioning the value of money to reaffirming his faith. The existential questions posed by Cole mirror Joey’s own confusion, presenting a somewhat mellow, introspective work, with the passion that drives the record bubbling under the surface, ready to rally the listener. Cole’s verse alongside the record’s other features, serves to complement Bada$$’s verses, further establishing him as a voice of moral authority.
But for Joey to be this voice of reason, we need to respect his role as a teacher. And whilst the wordplay on AABA rivals that of his greatest previous work on 1999, Summer Knights and B4.DA.$$, the message here on AABA does not carry the same level of wit. Joey’s cries of “f*** Donald Trump” and “f*** white supremacy” are blunt and simplistic, and when placed amongst a web of Joey’s lyrical expertise, seem particularly base and uninspiring. This simplistic message continues throughout the record, and indeed works in places – WHY U DON’T LOVE ME?’s simple, repeated questioning is powerful, evoking a desperation in Bada$$’s voice that truly encapsulates his dissent. But for the most part, while seemingly intended to be a dramatic call to action, these simplistic comments are uncharacteristic of Joey, and jar with the wordplay that he weaves throughout the work, resulting in lost potential at some stages of the record.
Overall, however, it is hard to heavily fault this record. Despite occasionally drifting into simplistic imagery, the heavy political leanings of this record drive home an important message, pushing Joey’s perspective and attempting to bring the change that he yearns for. But this is not done at the cost of technicality- the work’s potent political message is complemented by Joey’s trademark lyricism and skilful vocal performance. This, when combined with phenomenal features and excellent production, establishes this record as what many may consider Bada$$’s strongest project yet.