Joey Bada$$: A Return to East Coast Lineage & The Wonders of Adolescence
Article by Chris Deline
If web-hype were any indication of talent or potential, Brooklyn youngster Joey Bada$$ might well be one of rap’s hottest names right now. The typical talking points seem standard across the board: Despite being only 17 he has a “sophisticated” and “confident” flow, reps hard for his Progressive Era crew (“a collective of 18 rappers, producers, graphic designers and studio engineers“), exhibits a distinct and refreshing ’90s hip-hop vibe (reviews have been tireless with Nas references), and for having just released his first mixtape with 1999, he already has everyone from Mac Miller to MTV backing his cause. In the month that’s passed since 1999 dropped for free online, the mixtape has already racked up nearly 400k combined views between DatPiff and Live Mixtapes alone. Astounding results for a kid who has yet to enter his senior year of high school. But does web-hype really equate talent?
Of course not.
But it does accurately reflect Bada$$’s potential.
Part of 1999‘s immediate appeal comes with its obvious resemblance to what real “hip-hop heads” are either already familiar with, or are desperately seeking. Take for example one of the set’s most acclaimed cuts, “Survival Tactics,” which utilizes Styles of Beyond’s eponymous track from the group’s 1998 debut. Although it isn’t exactly a showstopper as far as musical references go, it shows that he’s actively looking back — digging, if you will — while moving forward. The same goes for when he leans on Dilla and Statik Selektah. “World Domination” goes a little deeper with sample of DOOM’s “Poo-Putt Platter,” which in turn sampled a tune from the Fat Albert Halloween episode: this is the kind of incestuous keeping-it-realness that back in tha day trumpeters kill for! “Funky Hos” and “Snakes” would each sound at home on Midnight Marauders tribute LP, but it’s “World Domination” that especially speaks to where the kid’s at musically: He’s most comfortable within the previous generation’s ideal of what an old-school flow was supposed to sound like. 1999 is the scrapbook of a kid whose parents listened to Biggie, attends the same high school as Adam Yauch once did, and who discovered Gangstarr through video games.
Most of the release finds him spitting about girls — what would you rap about if you were 17 again? — but even there he maintains a strange lyrical mixture, balancing macho posturing with emotions: “Word to my mother/Two things I never do is leave the crib without some rubbers or tell a funky ho I love her/These broads be trying to get a brother caught up in a sticky situation, missing menstruation” (from the Steve Miller Band-sampling “Funky Hos”) follows “So tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do/You know it ain’t too easy getting over you/I sent the postcards so you know it’s true/I promise that I wouldn’t get emotional” (Bada$$ doing his best DOOM in “Pennyroyal”). But 1999 isn’t empty in terms of showing his dexterity as an MC either: peep 3:43 to about 4:30 of “Hardknocks” where his rapid fire delivery really takes off, “This is for my niggas, killas, hundred dolla billas/On the block in the rock spot glock cocked watchin’ out for cops/All about they cheddar young girls know nothin’ that’s better…”
Speaking with Pitchfork, Pro Era producer Chuck Strangers explained his process in developing the handful of tracks he contributed to the release, “Joey had a very specific vision for 1999. I was playing him all these other kinds of beats and he’d be like, ‘These are ill, but not what I’m going for.’ So I sat and I listened to Joey Bada$$ music. People ask me, ‘Did you listen to a lot of Wu-Tang and Illmatic when you made these beats?’ I know those shits because I’m from Brooklyn and I love ’em, but to make Joey Bada$$’ tape, I listened to Joey Bada$$.” Growing up on hip-hop is a great starting point, but the ability to be so selectively focused of what it is he’s trying to do at such a young age is what might actually separate Bada$$ from the crowd. 1999 is no Illmatic, but it is a skillfully constructed tape by a minor-leaguer who’s playing at a pro-ball level. Whether you’re boom-bap’d out halfway through the mixtape or not, what you should take away from 1999 is its what-ifs: the what-ifs that have inspired the web-hype and the what-ifs that suggest his future to be bulging at the seems with “potential.” The reason it’s important to keep his age in mind isn’t simply because it’s remarkable that Joey Bada$$ appears so “sophisticated” and “confident” at only 17, but because he seems to already be better at constructing a consistent album than many who’ve been doing it since back before he was even born. Oh, the potential…