It's been nearly three years since Joey Bada$$ emerged on the scene as the rap wunderkind with a style reminiscent of the '90s, exhibited on his debut mixtape, 1999. A lot has taken place in his life since then. While he's yet to secure solo chart success and radio play, Joey has established himself as a respected underground act, backed by a loyal audience that gravitates toward his throwback lyricism. He's also lost two close friends and fellow Pro Era members: Capital STEEZ, and more recently his day-to-day manager and cousin, Junior B. After an extended delay, the 20-year-old Brooklyn native finally shares his studio debut, B4.DA.$$.
As anticipated, Joey’s penchant for the golden age of hip-hop is prevalent throughout the project. “Hazeus View” has a smooth, piano-laden melody that could soundtrack a walk to a park bench in Flatbush for an impromptu cypher session. “You ain't running with the apes yet/Apex at the Empire State neck/Hand no crown, my niggas, take that,” Joey snaps. All the moment is missing is a Dutch and an Arizona. He also matches his lyrical wits with boom bap pioneer DJ Premier on “Paper Trail$,” a record that features an opening line worthy of the album’s mission statement (“Before the money there was love/But before the money it was tough”) and deep references old heads can appreciate (“This kid ain't been the same since Biggie smacked me at my christening”).
This gritty style continues on “Big Dusty” and “No. 99,” the latter track encompassing the ’90s aesthetic to a tee, from Statik Selektah flipping the same Jimi Hendrix sample used on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” to Joey’s ruthless demeanor. “We ain't gon' settle for no iceberg lettuce/Let us eat when there's war/Or end up like venison meat in the street/They're not ready for beef.”
B4.DA.$$ finds a way to balance out the confines of revivalist '90s rap with deeper tracks that play up a more introspective Joey. “Like Me,” with its soulful backdrop courtesy of the Roots and the late J Dilla, is an unexpected match considering the fact these are two influential acts who were shifting the sound of hip-hop when Joey was still in diapers. The connection is nonetheless impressive, as Joey waxes on about his indulgence in the opposite sex, as well as showcases his ability to juxtapose newfound fame with surviving in an environment he knows all too well. “It's like every step bring me close to destiny/And every breath I get closer to the death of me/I'm just tryna carry out my own legacy/But the place I call home ain't lettin' me.” It’s also worth mentioning BJ the Chicago Kid continues his streak as one of the most reliable hook artists in the game here.
Joey briefly touches on the deaths of those close to him, specifically STEEZ, rapping, “Sometimes I ask the Lord why he be blessing me/And not my brothers whose souls now rest in peace.” He further explores this tragic narrative with “On & On,” a somber cut that bleeds emotion. Even if you can’t hear it in the tone of Joey’s stoic voice, listeners realize the topic broached is one that has stuck with him since late 2012, and this is one of the few times he's addressed it on wax. Over sweet, bass-driven production from Freddie Joachim, Joey lights one up for his fallen Pro Era soldier: “I really miss my partner/But I know he with Big Poppa, 2 Pacs, and the Big L rolled proper/And that's a big pun, know that I'mma join him/When my time come, but the story just begun.”
Joey purposefully chose to limit his guest list, which makes sense for the young MC: Why give up the limelight during the biggest moment of your career? Still, he makes the most progress creatively on B4.DA.$$ when he shares the spotlight. Case in point, “Belly of the Beast.” The beat lingers with ferocity, and Joey comes correct with rhymes and a Bed-Stuy attitude to match Hit-Boy’s production. “Looking back in the days, amazed/’Cause the lab rat done made it out the maze/Still feel caged, enraged though/Used the underground railroad like a runaway slave,” he raps, flashing his Caribbean roots in the process (“Tell me what them know ’bout the Badmon named Jozif”). Jamaican artist Chronixx fittingly joins him, knocking out a swanky verse and a backend hook that brings the performance full circle.
Elsewhere, Joey Bada$$ links up with Atlanta native and patchwork talent Raury on “Escape 120,” a blistering track that completely sheds the characteristics of ’90s hip-hop and travels light years ahead. In other words, modern day. Which is perfect for Raury, who delivers one of the best verses on the whole album by rapping double-time with an electric flow and blazing through the gloomy backdrop with André 3000 flair. Southwest Airlines commercial chorus aside, Joey also makes the most of the moment as he details the pressure that comes with gaining success at such a young age. No wonder he has to maneuver through the industry with his third eye open.
Does his ’90s posturing wear thin? A bit. More dissatisfying is when Joey Bada$$ focuses on rappity rap territory instead of delivering something more substantial. You can hear him firing on all cylinders on “Christ Conscious,” a lyrically dense cut that gets the forehead swipe for his tenacity on the microphone. The rhymes, though, leave no lasting impact: “Motherfuckin' microphone eater/Spittin' hot shit, hit ya dome with the heater/Wouldn't want to be ya, dish lyrical fajitas/Got dragon balls, like my name was Vegeta.”
These moments feel more like a freestyle than Joey actually crafting a song. Which brings up another point. Several of his verses off the album have been used in freestyle form dating back to early 2013. This may come across as petty, but based on the delays of B4.DA.$$, you would think Joey had enough time to write some new verses than recycle old ones. If not for his fans, at least to keep his album fresh when it was time for release.
And that’s the rub about this project. Even if Joey’s lane was narrowed based on the stylistic nature of his music—backpack rap—he came into the game with untapped potential. He was a diamond in the rough; the world was his oyster; whatever colloquial you want to add here, that potential is only half realized on B4.DA.$$, which speaks to his lack of adjustment in transitioning into a full-fledged artist who truly represents something other than ’90s nostalgia rap. Still, B4.DA.$$ is a commendable performance from an MC who has every opportunity to capitalize on his next project with some more seasoning, experience, and focus.
Edwin Ortiz is the associate editor, social of Complex Music. Follow him @iTunesEra.