There isn’t much I’d trade my 21st-century luxuries for, but ’90s hip-hop always makes me feel like I was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Hence, Joey Bada$$’s mixtape 1999 is my nostalgia kryptonite. The moment I hear the muffled banter of the intro track “Summer Knights,” I’m not at my desk in Ann Arbor anymore. I’m in my spot on the couch beside my best friends, chilling after school in the wood-paneled basement of a Brooklyn row house. It’s an experience I’ve never lived, yet it feels like it’s my own memory, as I bob my head to the kicks and snares of the mixtape.
The thing is, 1999 wasn’t actually released in 1999. It was released in 2012. In fact, Joey Bada$$ was only four years old in 1999. Like me, he was a 2000s kid. And yet, the old-school vibes of 1999 are somehow more evocative than the ’90s boom-bap that inspired the tape’s sound. While listening to Wu-Tang Clan might make me ponder life in New York City in the ’90s, listening to 1999 actually compels me to put on some baggy jeans and pick up a skateboard.
1999 is often criticized for being so washed in nostalgia that it feels more derivative of the ’90s than inspired by them — that is to say, critics call it a ’90s knockoff. That’s one way to look at it, but to me it’s really a wholehearted homage to a bygone generation of hip-hop.
The beats are a seamless mix of smooth originals produced by Bada$$’s collaborators and classic instrumentals from some of the all-time greats like MF DOOM and J Dilla. The rhymes and flows are likewise borrowed from MF DOOM among other rap legends, especially Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. He’s not just biting other rappers’ styles; Bada$$ wears his influences on his sleeve. He’s more like a devoted student of ’90s hip-hop, and 1999 is his thesis.
At the heart of this tape is charisma. Bada$$ doesn’t spit bars mindlessly or play himself up as a one-note character. You can feel his hunger to go off and prove himself on “Survival Tactics” just as strongly as his melancholy over teenage heartbreak on “Pennyroyal.” Authenticity is what drives the charismatic personality in his songwriting and delivery.
It’s important to acknowledge that 1999 is not a perfect project, and its writing has some god-awful moments. Homophobia and sexism stain several bars. I always wince at an ill-conceived prison rape line in one verse, and I even caught a transphobic double entendre in another verse that I’d never noticed until just recently. These types of attitudes are relics of old-school hip-hop that didn’t need to be brought back for this tape, and I hope Bada$$ has moved past them in the nine years since this mixtape’s release.
1999 is one of the greatest mixtapes of all time. When I hear “mixtape,” I think of a DIY rap project on DatPiff or SoundCloud that might include freestyles or verses on top of popular beats. That definition has gotten muddy in today’s era of hip-hop, where artists label throwaway compilations as mixtapes or sell them like studio albums and make millions. But to this day, mixtapes are primarily a way to make a name for yourself. By that measure, no artist has gotten their foot in the door with a tape as iconic as 1999.
Daily Arts Writer Dylan Yono can be reached at email@example.com.