BY JOHN WYATT – SPORTS SECTION EDITOR
For a genre that is becoming increasingly progressive and experimental, there is a strong desire among large contingencies of hip-hop fans to return to “real” hip-hop or, more specifically, 90’s East Coast rap.
It was an era ruled by rap heavyweights such as The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Jay-Z.
There is an idea among several rap listeners that this age in hip-hop was the “golden age,” and somehow hip-hop strayed from both the sound and ideas of this time.
With that said, over the past three or four years there was a resurgence among several underground acts in the classic New York sound that dominated the 90’s.
At the tip of this movement is one of hip-hop’s most exciting young talents, Joey Bada$$.
The 20 year-old Brooklyn, NY, native first came into the spotlight with his widely successful and highly regarded mixtape, 1999. His first project was praised by critics for his playful lyricism and hip-hop purists rejoiced at the “resurrection of boom-bap.”
After a less celebrated follow-up mixtape and several projects with his rap posse “Pro Era,” the rapper finally released his highly anticipated official debut album, B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “before the money”) this past January.
As expected, Bada$$ fully dives in the 90’s New York sound. His lyrics are full of references to the past New York greats (“This kid ain’t been the same since Biggie smacked me at my christening”) and the production is full of classic East Coast boom-bap beats, one of the album’s strongest points.
Lyrically, the young rapper takes on rather mature subject matters for a kid who still isn’t legally old enough to drink, and if you look at his biography, it starts to make sense.
His best friend and fellow New York rapper Capital Steez commited suicide back in December of 2014, and his cousin/manager passed away at the beginning of 2015.
Add these to the controversial deaths of several young black men in recent months and you start to understand why this album sticks out above other albums trying to mimic this sound.
Across several tracks, the rapper paints the picture of a young, restless youth trying to make sense of the world around him and the new-found success he managed to carve out of it.
On “Paper Trail$,” Bada$$ raps about both the trappings of money and fame and freedoms that come along with it in a way that only a kid this young could express in words.
On my favorite track of the album, “Like Me,” he tackles the political and social injustice young black men are currently facing following cases such as Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin (“They want another black man in the penitentiary/It’s even hard for that man standing next to me/Cause he could catch a bullet that was really meant for me”).
While Bada$$ does show us emotion and political/social awareness, he leaves plenty of room for the hard-nosed, heavy-hitting raps that New York hip-hop gave birth to. Songs such as “Christ Conscious” and “Big Dusty” harken back to the days of the dirty, aggressive acts such as Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, and Mobb Deep.
To me, this is the lane where Bada$$ seems to shine most as a rapper. He appears to rhyme with an effortless flow that still manages to punch you in the stomach as you listen to him glide over the heavy bass and cracking snare beats.
We do see a more vulnerable and emotional state from Bada$$. He reminds you that he’s as much Biggie Smalls as he his Q-Tip (“Spittin hot shit, hit ya dome with the heater”).
While the rapper delivers an overall solid project, there are a few duds and missteps along the way. The song “Escape 120” sees Bada$$ fumbling a bit over a break-beat and singing unacceptably off-key, even for a rapper.
A guest verse from Chicago, IL, prodigy Raury saves the song a bit, but it is still one of the lower points of the album. The song “Teach Me” featuring Kiesza also feels incredibly forced on Bada$$’s part (thankfully it’s only a bonus track). There are also moments where lyrically Bada$$ shows us his age.
Lyrics like “I’m known to jack the booty like I’m Sparrow” are cute, but belong more on a Lil Wayne album than on someone claiming to be the torchbearer for New York hip-hop.
The production also deserves a shout-out as well. The younger rapper brought in several old and new producers to help craft and sculpt his debut album. Legendary New York producer DJ Premier provides a beat on the song “Paper Trail$,” and Bada$$ manages to get a contribution from deceased producer and the architect of smooth beats J. Dilla as well as the Roots on the song “Like Me.”
Newcomers such as fellow Pro Era producers Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers, and underground New York producer Statik Selektah, who is most credited for bringing back the classic New York sound in hip-hop.
Overall, Bada$$ delivers a solid debut project.
While he hasn’t quite delivered a statement record that can begin to touch the likes of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die or Nas’s Illmatic, he shows that he won’t back down from his influences.
I’m not quite ready to put him among the upper echelon of current rappers like Kendrick, Drake, or J. Cole, the talent and drive are there.
The key for Bada$$ going forward will to be figure out a way to reinvent the classic sound he is influenced by in a way that feels original, fresh, and engaging in a way that boom-bap hip-hop hasn’t felt in a while.