Joey Bada$$ Is Worth Your Time | A DJBooth Rebuttal
Have you copped B4.Da.$$ yet?
It's probably not trendy to write an album review two weeks after an album comes out, but there's an old truism about trends and quality rarely finding common ground, and this is a review that I feel a need to write. Because hip-hop NEEDS to make time for Joey Bada$$'s debut album, "B4.da.$$."
Call this a "traditional" review, if you will. After all, the "traditional" hip-hop that Joey represents takes time to digest. This is rhythm AND poetry that we are asked to make time for; a far cry from the pop conscious hook heavy perfectly fun but hardly substantive wave of music that has dominated the rap game since sometime around 2005 or 1990 or whenever the golden age edned for you. The kind of catchy, corny, predictable songs that we still call "hip-hop" for some reason. And not the kind of music that Joey Bada$$ gives us with "B4.Da.$$."
Joey Bada$$ Isn't Easy Mac n' Cheese
There is nothing wrong with easy mac. I remember coming home from school in 4th grade and wolfing down a bowl fresh out of the microwave, cheese pure fire, those little elbow noodles the perfect vessel to deliver the pleasure of simple carbs to my hungry young mouth. The thing about easy mac is that no one savors it. You eat it, and fast, because it is easy.
Joey is not easy. B4.DA.$$ needs to be savored.
Joey Bada$$ Rocks Poetic
Take the track "No. 99" as your first course in the not so simple Badmon feast. At first glance, this banger sounds like a bumpin golden era Preemo inspired anthem of anarchic youth, lightly sprinkled with some socially conscious "fuck tha police" jabs for that modern flavor. But let it roll around your mouth a bit, and you will discover some of the most deliscious diss lines in recent memory:
"I got the blueprint to this shit, Jay to the Oh Vee / If Blue was a prince, I'm still Joseph K.o.n.y. / Niggas know they can't ever little bro me/ No matter how big they blow, they still a little below."
Straight out the gate, Joey throws down the gauntlet by letting us know that he has the game figured out already, while simultaneously setting himself up for a slam dunk over the head of Empire State of Mind and king of the NYC bragadoscious diss, Jay-Z himself. (Get it? "Blueprint?") The next line layers on some delectable double meanings; even if Blue (Jay-z's daughter) was a prince, Joey'd still be Joseph Kony. K.o.n.y=king of new york/notorious international murderer of the competition. Yeah, Joey just dissed Jay-z and called himself a renegade murderous African dictator. But it gets better.
"Niggas know they can't ever little bro me" uses a well placed reference to Kanye's classic "Big Brother" track to take yet another shot at Jay. Rumors have long swirled that Joey turned down a deal with the R.O.C. boss, and the young Badmon tells us here that he didn't want Jay as a mentor. After all, Joey already has the "blueprint." He's so good, what does he have to learn from Jigga man anyhow? Joey ends his epic Jay-z diss stanza by putting his own skills on a pedestal: no matter how big Jay-z "blows," or how many albums he sells, the veteran is a little below Joey. After a verse like that, it's hard to argue that Bada$$ hasn't taken the lyrical NYC crown.
Look closely at any of the tracks on B4.Da.$$. This kind of lyrical complexity and double/triple meaning wordplay defines Joey's virtuosity as a writer, and it needs to be digested slowly.
B4.Da.$$ is NYC's Future
There are two places where some listeners have taken fault with Joey's debut: haters either call it boring, or trapped in the past, or both. By doing so, critics don't give Bada$$ the recognition he deserves for blending new sounds with old, and creating a canvass that remains exploratory while displaying such striking sonic familiarity. Look closely at the track "Like Me" for a clear example of Joey's ability to blend past and present masterfully.
Dilla x Roots x Chicago Kid x Bada$$.
The track's very construction highlights Joey's willingness to take risks in blending new and old. Continuing with our food metaphors (yes, I've probably been listening to too much Bronsolino): An unreleased Dilla beat is like a five course meal by your favorite chef who happened to have passed away before he could serve you his masterpiece. Joey takes the least obvious approach to the beat with his decision to spice the mix up with the Roots masterful instrumentation and Chicago Kid's silky vocals. This isn't music stuck in the past; it is Joey's take on tradition, adapted to the 21st century.
Listen to BJ's chorus. This is a slice of neo-soul at it's finest, incorporating the contemporary Chicago sound in a way that New York artists have rarely dared. Joey could have taken a Dilla beat and spit some nice lines and pressed a boom-bap record straight out of 1994. That's what he is good at, and comfortable doing. Instead, he performed the nearly sacriligieous act of altering the Donut Messiah's work, and pulls it off through clever instrumental features and a hook that sounds anything but vintage NYC.
Throughout, Joey's feature choices add a modernized sound to his productions that he rarely achieved on his previous mix tape projects. But he doesn't leave it to other artists to make "B4.Da.$$" sound fresh and relevant. The Badmon frequently and skillfully changes up his flow in aggressive and very "now" ways, spitting verses that sound more GKMC than Illmatic, all while preserving the tradition of Brooklyn hip-hop that he so obviously worships.
Overall, if you think Joey's sound is all bitten or all 90's, your ears are missing some clever and adventurous sonic choices the young artist makes. He speaks often about creating "traditional hip-hop," which he does deftly here. But to consider an art form's original incarnation irrelevant to the current sound or scene, especially when that "traditional" aesthetic is so flexibly and brilliantly updated to reflect modern culture, is ignorant. With flows like "Big Dusty," beats like "On and On," and lyrics like you can find on every track on "B4.Da.$$," Joey creates a sound that is at once retro and modern, but most importantly is defined by immense skill and a willingness to explore and craft an original voice.
B4.Da.$$ is Worth Your Time.
If you listened to Joey's new album once and didn't quite get it, I don't blame you. If it didn't hit you in the face with catchy hooks, bass rattling beats, or catchy gimmicks, I'm not surprised. Joey Bada$$ is an authentic Sicilian scampi with red wine, not a cup of easy mac with apple juice. He takes time to digest; his music is made to be savored.
Support real hip-hop.
And as a fan of hip-hop, you owe Joey this chance. How can we beg for real lyrics, and then turn a deaf ear to a juggernaut as lyrically complex as Bada$$? How can we hate on repetitive and soulless trap beats, and not appreciate the subtle sonic choices Joey makes in transforming the golden era's "traditional" boom-bap sound in to something modern and relevant?
As advocates of this music and culture, we owe Joey the chance to be savored. And the meal is well worth your effort.