As the Obama presidency came to a close, many black Americans felt worn out and pessimistic—and confused about why President Obama didn’t appear to feel the same. He’d dealt with an obstructionist Congress, and racial tension came to the forefront of American life during his time in office. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign of bigotry proved that the country wasn’t as far from its racist, bigoted roots as many wanted to believe. Still, Obama clung to an unwavering—some would call it naive—faith that the best American ideals, and the good in people, would prevail.
When Malia Obama was photographed wearing a Pro Era shirt in 2015, the crew’s leader Joey Badass wasn’t known for his political or big-picture social statements. But on his second studio album, All-Amerikkkan Badass, he balances our prevailing despair with some of the focused optimism that his big fan’s father had. Largely eschewing the ’90s boom bap aesthetic that defined his early work for more melody-driven production from like 1-900, Kirk Knight and DJ Khalil, the album is reaching for something big. It’s the first hip-hop State of the Union address in 2017.
Being a black person in America is a horror movie (word to Jordan Peele’s Get Out), and Joey Badass knows that the odds aren’t in his favor. All but a few of the songs here speak about systemic racism in the form of police brutality, mass incarceration, and poverty. The Chronixx-assisted “Babylon” articulates the disgust with near-constant news of black people dying at the hands of police; Joey shifts from his usual lower register to yell at the TV just like many of us have. On “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka),” one of the album’s most beautiful songs, he confronts his country almost like you would a fucked up parent, demanding answers for the constant mistreatment and lack of care for black people. Elsewhere he disparages the Commander-In-Orange and talks about how Obama’s tenure didn’t satisfy: “Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need more closure/And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over.”
But resentment isn’t the only emotion on All-Amerikkkan Badass. He doesn’t sound frozen in anger, just acutely aware of the American condition. But even still, he won’t give up on his relentless pursuit of the American dream, of achieving success and prosperity through determination and hard work—even as a crooked system drops barriers in his path.
Much of the album’s first half is defined by a focused optimism. “Look up in the sky, it’s a bird it’s a plane/No, it’s the young black god, living out his dreams,” he beams on “For My People.” Two tracks later, on “Land of the Free,” he raps, “How many times do I gotta tell you? I’m a man on a mission/Many times I gotta tell you I don’t need no permission.” And on the J. Cole-assisted “Legendary,” he reveals his aspiration to make timeless music: “Always been my mission, never secondary...they gon’ realize eventually, I take it if they don’t give it to me.” He refuses to engage in something like the military (“Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier”), but his emphasis on his personal path to success, and his encouragement that others do the same, feels thoroughly American. “I want you believe not only in me, but have some faith in yourself,” he raps on “Legendary.”
“Devastated,” Joey’s most successful single to date, is one of the few songs that doesn’t directly address racial inequality, and instead focuses on pain and depression more abstractly—but even that song is more about empowerment and working through pain, as opposed to dwelling in it. The pursuit of his American dream even gives new context to more standard fare in unexpected ways. The folksy guitar licks on “Temptation” and pop quality of “Devastated” feel like acts of defiance instead of assimilation.
By giving his pursuit of the American Dream as much attention as his disgust, Joey Badass expresses a kind of rap patriotism, full of powerful contradictions. When he speaks of insurrection on the album closer, “Amerikkkan Idol,” he’s holding America to the promise it made its citizens. Like the title suggests, he sees the prejudice built into the foundation of America but can’t help but be the country’s son all the same.