B4.DA.$$, Joey Bada$$
Rap, with its combination of progressive tendencies and self-conscious reverence for its own past, has always eyed up-and-comers warily. It’s a genre heavily invested in its own future, and each new face seems to be hailed as its messiah, bitterly derided as its downfall or most likely, some of both.
Joey Bada$$ has long been a darling of hip-hop traditionalists: those who hold Nas’s Illmatic as their Bible and tend to look down on anything that doesn’t sound like it came out of New York City in the ’90s. Luckily, Joey, who hails from Bed Stuy, does sound like that. The only problem? He’s 19 years old. The Notorious B.I.G. died before Joey was even born.
So Joey Bada$$ is what might be termed a “neoclassicist,” an upstart who wears his influences on his sleeve. This was apparent from the very beginning. On 1999, his debut mixtape released in 2012, Joey styles himself as leading a gangsta rap revival – “resurrecting boom-bap from the tombs,” as he puts it. And he’s stayed remarkably true to that goal, both in his solo projects and his collaborative efforts with Pro Era, a hip-hop collective. He’s also at the forefront of the “Beast Coast” movement, along with groups like The Underachievers and Flatbush Zombies.
B4.DA.$$, Joey’s debut album, continues in the same vein as his earlier work. If anything, he’s doubled down in his ’90s revivalism: the beats on B4.DA.$$ are exclusively of the boom-bap variety, and the album’s producers include DJ Premier, Statik Selektah, Chuck Strangers, J Dilla and The Roots. Features are few and far between and he even throws in a few skits, a once-common practice that is quickly falling out of fashion. It’s a strategy that could easily backfire in the hands of lesser MCs, but Joey Bada$$ makes it work.
On B4.DA.$$ the emphasis is on the lyricism, as purists say it should be. Joey has shown himself to be consistently up to that task. He works diligently within the beat, Biggie-style, filling his verses with densely-packed rhymes. He’s boastful but earnest, steering clear of the near-parodic excess that has lately come into vogue courtesy of rappers like Danny Brown, Young Thug and A$AP Ferg. Instead, Joey opts for something more authentic. “Truth is, if it ain’t real, I don’t feel it,” he says on his track “Big Dusty.” “If I don’t get hit my spirit, I don’t get near it.”
Sometimes, however, he gets a little too eager, edging into the verbose in his enthusiasm. “They raisin’ max, I raise stakes to keep the brolic / My visions is macrocosmic, pass the chronic”.
Content-wise, B4.DA.$$ is a little thin – he tends to hover around well-trodden subjects, and spends a lot of time describing his own prowess – but he occasionally strays into other territory, tackling isolation and disillusionment amid fame on “Escape 120” and social issues on “Like Me.”
A few weeks ago in the Record I reviewed Rae Sremmurd’s Sremmlife (“Off the airwaves with WCFM,” Jan. 21, 2015), and I can’t help but consider these two albums – both debut albums by young artists – together. In a lot of ways, they’re opposites. Sremmlife is lyrically sparse but overflowing with charisma; B4.DA.$$ is wordy but, ultimately, a little flat. It’s a problem inherent in any revival: its output, well-crafted though it may be, will never seem quite as fresh or challenging as the truly “new.”
Still, I have hope for the future. As much as I enjoy B4.DA.$$ – “Paper Trail$” and “Big Dusty” are among the standout tracks – my favorite Joey Bada$$ verse is still his feature on A$AP Rocky’s “1Train,” which, if anything, proves he can not only exist but thrive outside of his boom-bap comfort zone. If Joey learns to trust his own voice, he may well become a force to be reckoned with.