Joey Bada$$ has aligned the release of his debut album with his 20th birthday and the title, B4.Da.$$, seems like an attempt to neatly encapsulate the teenage years that led up to this moment. In the two-and-a-half years since the release of Joey’s breakout mixtape, 1999, the Hip Hop collective he helped jumpstart as a high-schooler has thinned out. Beginning with the heartbreaking suicide of Pro Era rapper Capital STEEZ in 2012, even more sorrow came last month when Bada$$’s cousin and manager passed last month. The tragedies dot an otherwise uninterrupted rise for the group and the recent release of a picture of Malia Obama donning a Pro Era shirt on Instagram marks an unexpectedly full-out mainstream assimilation. However, Joey claimed he didn’t know who the first-daughter was before lapping up the publicity once he figured it out.
Despite his stage name, Bada$$ is now officially a young adult and he’s imbued his latest music with a somber, “Third Eye open” sense of self-important consciousness. If 1999 brimmed with a nostalgic enthusiasm, the years since have given reason for fans to become disillusioned with its artist’s increasingly boxed in tradition. Summer Knights, a mixtape-album released in 2013, by contrast was darker and grittier but neither as promising or fulfilling as the project it followed. To his credit, Bada$$ has been a magnet for and curator of strong production and this new album is a testament to that affinity. B4.Da.$$ rolls around and settles into a dusty, boom-bap driven vibe of yesteryear. Then again, the major issue is that the album harks back more than it pushes forward, and Bada$$ now faces his toughest hurdle in moving past his own best reference to the nineties. Like many third-wave Hip Hop traditionalists, Joey and his not-so-aptly named Progressive Era crew find their idea of perfection in classics that were released around the time he was born.
“This kid ain’t been the same since Biggie smacked me at my christening,” he raps on a top-tier and noticeably-nimble (for 2015) DJ Premier cut “”Paper Trail$.” A few songs later, he adds, “I got the blueprint to this shit, Jay to the Oh Vee;” and then, tributing his fallen friend, “I know he with Big Poppa / 2 Pacs, and the big L rolled proper / And that’s a big pun.” Joey Bada$$ himself sounds most like an Enta Da Stage-era Buckshot though, and there’s an irony apparently lost on him when he delivers lines like, “Some niggas bitin’ flows, yo, that’s burglary,” or puffing out his chest over the same repurposed-by-The Roots Dilla beat, “One of the last original emcees that’s left standing on the planet.” That song, “Like Me,” is actually one of the strongest on the album, providing further proof that Joey’s most captivating quality belongs to his husky baritone and ability to capture an essence: assured but laid-back, cocky but cool. The lyrics themselves never delve as deep as they purport to though: “My mind boggles when time toggles / In the ocean of stars it’s hard to find goggles.” Expanding on his years of quiet consistency, BJ The Chicago Kid offers yet another fitting vocal feature here, this time repurposing a melodic line he used first on a sultry track for Cali rapper Thurz almost three years ago.
“Escape 120” is the most otherly ambitious offering and yet manages to still belong. Chuck Strangers, who applauded his own work on the song in a recent interview with DX, builds up a fast but gloomy track propelled by a collage of running bass and sharply ambient sounds. The song, featuring Joey’s fellow Hip Hop wunderkind Raury, is rooted in jungle and hints at potential beyond boom-bap for the Brooklyn emcee down the line. “No. 99” is likely the record’s quintessential cut and its opening thumping bass and ensuing shoutiness sounds like an attempt at a dirtier and more menacing version of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” On “Curry Chicken,” the most outrightly soulful number here, Bada$$ endearingly positions himself as an on-the-rise youngster inspired by and missing his mother’s home-cooking. That track is one of the few instances on the record were finds Joey opening up so personally. Here, intimacy suits him, the beat, and its placement at the end of the album.
As a whole, there’s very little that’s progressive about B4.Da.$$ but it’s a distinguished retread and the most polished project the young emcee has put out to date. In that way, it delivers on his ultimate promise. The real questions remain: what’s next? What else? Joey Bada$$ has proven entirely capable of keeping up tradition, his next accomplishment might be breaking it all down.