June 14, 2012 - 4:01pm
BY GUS TURNER
I realize that if I heap too much praise on Joey Bada$$ from the get-go, you’ll think that this blog hands out hip-hop superlatives like candy, so I’ll compliment him in the most non-committal way possible. In truth, this awkward method is probably befitting given that the rapper turned 17 only a couple months ago. Here goes though: Joey Bada$$ could, kinda, sorta be, I don’t know, the best “next best thing” in rap music today. Maybe? Ugh, I’m so nervous! (Check “Yes” if you agree.)
Bashful dirt-kicking aside, though, after the release of 1999 one thing has become clear: Any and all young rappers who, as they often do, want to stake their claim as the greatest thing since the invention of the 808 have to go through Joey Bada$$ first. And honestly, that’s probably the most understated praise that has been said about him in the last few months. For the most part, critics have been pointing to Nas as a proverbial spirit guide to Joey’s career trajectory thus far. Before any mention of associations with God’s Son, though, let me address my first point.
In a landscape where hip hop has become increasingly splintered, so too have the young artists who seek to represent it in the future. In one corner, Chief Keef, only 16, finds a companion in the party-rap thunder of Waka Flocka Flame, where lyricism is sacrificed for primal displays of bangery (I may or may not have made that word up, but I think the meaning is understood). On the West Coast, Odd Future, talented or not (I’ll choose the former), relies on shock value and gimmickry to a certain degree. Azealia Banks is apparently already jaded with the industry, and she hasn’t released a full album yet. Kitty Pryde is likely a viral trend who will wither without a spotlight, and the jury is still out on whether Diggy Simmons can even be considered a real rapper. In the midst of all this chaos, though, Joey Bada$$ emerges as an artist through which hip-hop can return to the roots of its Golden Age. Of course, before doing that, he has to finish his homework.
Bada$$ and his Progressive Era crew don’t seem overly concerned with bringing about nostalgia though, just a style of rapping where the artist is actually addressing the troubles of the world around him. While audiences have enjoyed Kanye’s #richkidproblems and Drake’s girl troubles, where have the socially conscious voices of rap gone?
Aside from changing his name to Yasiin Bey, Mos Def has stayed relatively silent, along with his Blackstar counterpart, Talib Kweli. Common’s latest attempt at revitalizing his old-school edginess came off pretty flat, and even a little awkward. For a while now, the Black Hippy crew has shouldered much of this burden, but their murky production plays to a much more esoteric crowd than the jazzy, laidback vibes of Bada$$’s cuts. In one line, Bada$$ addresses this absence of soul in hip-hop that has made the genre seem so self-obsessed as of late: “Like I told you I know n----s who trash rappin / worry about the trends in fashion / rather than the sending of passion.”
The more we listen to lines like this in 1999, the more the comparisons to Illmatic-era Nas become difficult to ignore. Here is young artist who sees a problem in the world and has the talent and backing to bring about real attention to it. He and Nas share a penchant for dense lyricism and street-wise thematics but what’s most surprising is how well-produced the album is. When Illmatic boasted heavyweights like DJ Premier, Large Professor and Pete Rock, it set the hip-hop world on fire. Prior to his, most album production was handled by one producer to give a sense of coherence to the work’s sound. While 1999’s roster of MF DOOM, Statik Selektah, and the late J. Dilla certainly doesn’t have the same landmark effect, it certainly isn’t shabby. It’s also bolstered by a list of lesser-knowns from the Progressive Era crew who contribute more than their fair share to the album’s atmosphere. Like Illmatic there truly isn’t a weak track on this album.
And like Nas before him, Bada$$, who ironically enough will not be able to vote in the upcoming election, captures the zeitgeist of the disillusioned teenagers and twenty-somethings who inhabit his world. The video for “Survival Tactics” is rich with imagery of young, black men in ski masks hanging around Occupy Wall Street and abandoned buildings. They give us an immediate sense of the grittiness that Bada$$ lives and flourishes in everyday. Perhaps it’s his inherent rebelliousness as a teenager that allows for this uncensored take on the harsh realities of the world. In any case, it’s refreshing to see a rapper who, in an era where every up and comer seems to be trading his or her soul for a record deal and mainstream popularity (see: Wale), bucks the system for the sake of his music and his message.
Whether it’s the innocent, but guarded, love of “Don’t Front,” the bawdy shit-talking of “Funky Ho” or the hard-hitting flows of “Killuminati,” Bada$$ is undeniably passionate and genuine throughout this tape. At times, the quality of this album, as unbelievable as it may sound, leaves me slack-jawed and grasping for words to adequately describe it. However, for a rapper who says “it’s definite, I spit more than speech impediments,” I’ll say this as succinctly as possible: In 2012, it’s going to be difficult to find a rap album better than 1999.