Colin Bugler At some point during the Winter of 2012, upon the recommendation of a close friend, I was fortunate enough to download and listen to a copy of Joey Bada$$’ acclaimed first mixtape with hip-hop collective, Pro Era. Led by the killer single, Waves, 1999 completely blew me away. I was sold on Joey’s remarkable update of the quintessentially 90s boom-bap sound (characterised by the sample-led productions of DJ Premier, Wu Tang’s RZA, and Pete Rock). The combined effect demonstrated a remarkable capacity for lyricism, wordplay, and most notably, unbelievable future potential.
Aged 17 at the time of that release, Bada$$ quickly established himself on the record as (nominally) wise beyond his years, treading a No Man’s Land of endearing youthful arrogance, tinged with street learning and cutting observations of NYC youth culture. There was an explosion of excitement in the hip-hop community around the release of 2014’s follow-up mixtape, Summer Knights; however, critics were left divided due to Joey’s apparent move away from old-school revival. Consequentially, I couldn’t wait to have a listen to his much-hyped debut.
Thematically, the album is much more complex than previous releases. The verses tend to focus on the dark side of the accumulation of wealth, as well as the ways in which Joey finds his personal life has changed under the burden of fame, attention, expectation, and of course, money. For me, the album brought to mind the debut of another master MC and New Yorker, Jay-Z, whose Reasonable Doubt release blended a similar jazz production base with Gatsby-esque lyrical concerns. Bada$$ draws more specific parallels to rap mythology with a re-working of the Wu Tang Clan’s seminal C.R.E.A.M acronym on Paper Trail$. He adapts the hook to “Cash ruins everything around me”, symptomatic of Joey’s willingness to use the tools at hand, be it classic sounds or lines, to suit his purpose.
Personally, Like Me was the real high-point of the album, with production from Dilla and The Roots, who joined Joey for a live performance of the track on the Jimmy Fallon show. The track showcases some of the LP’s most vivid imagery, with Bada$$ boasting:
Look at me wrong, I turn you to tomb stones, Lock you in the crosses then you gone, Like you know, Medusa.
By comparing his ability to bring about the demise of his rivals to the Medusa’s gaze, Joey plays on the idea of crosses as both graveyard markers and the sights on a weapon. Escape 120 also switches up the sound of the album with a D&B style breakbeat.
All in all, a very versatile record. It’s well worth some attention, though perhaps not always quite at the level of 1999.
Picks: Like Me, Paper Trail$
Elliott Boekhoff Like Colin, I too received the very same recommendation of Joey from a good friend. To quote him, he remarked: “You like hip-hop but you’ve never heard of Joey?!” Needless to say, he had my attention. So I headed on over to datpiff.com, and downloaded his mixtape, 1999. My goodness, was I surprised. Two questions immediately arose; how did my new lanky, ginger, Cornish friend have such impeccable taste in rap? And who is this Joey Bada$$?! At the time, Bada$$ was just 17 years old, but he had the lyrical prowess of a veteran MC and the mixtape in general had a very 90s East Coast hip-hop vibe. It was certainly very refreshing to hear amidst the other overproduced, shallow, egotistical ‘rappers’ that had recently been plaguing the industry.
Debut album, B4.DA.$$, has fortunately not strayed too far from Joey’s roots. It’s worth noting that Bada$$ turned down a deal from Def Jam records and decided to stay with indie label, Relentless Records. Lyrically, he is even more advanced, with a plethora of clever metaphors and double entendres that can only be understood by consulting rapgenius.com. His message is similar to his previous mixtapes, often criticising mainstream rap and promoting Pro Era’s meteoric rise.
This album differentiates from Joey’s previous mixtapes through the questioning of his own identity and beliefs, as well as how fame has shaped him. You almost get a Holden Caulfield vibe from his fame-induced anxiety on tracks like Hazeus View, as well as seeing the more spiritual side of Bada$$. He also takes on the abhorrent acts of US law enforcement in inner cities, with several cases of innocent African Americans being murdered in recent times. Like Me is one track that does this, and it’s definitely a highlight of the album.
While it’s a very solid debut album, B4.Da.$$ is not without its flaws. In my opinion, Joey drops a few too many references to Biggie and Nas as well as his own past mixtapes. I personally am not a fan of rappers rapping about rapping, I much prefer there to be some sort of message or objective in the lyrics. I would have rather seen him take on more socio-political issues or his own inner complexities, although the tracks he does this on are fantastic. Also, I much preferred the positive vibes of his previous mixtapes, and often felt that this album, on the whole, was a little too negative.
B4.Da.$$ is definitely worth a listen if you’re a hip-hop fan. However, if you haven’t heard much of Bada$$ before then you must go back and listen to his previous mixtapes: 1999 and Summer Knights. His lyricism has evolved, but he has maintained his intrinsic musical values - and he is still only 19 years old. Expect to hear much more from Joey Bada$$ in the future.