Joey Badass Wants to Be Rap's Revolutionary Star—But Is Rap Ready?

Joey Badass, at just 22, is undergoing a career reinvention and the music is the best it's ever been. Will the audience that embraced him as a high schoole

Despite the half-dozen promotional stops he’s scheduled to make around Manhattan this grey afternoon, Joey Badass is in a black Lexus sedan, headed to Brooklyn. In the SUV that trails behind him—one of those new Escalades with a digital camera feed where the rearview mirror should be—the driver turns on the radio. Wolf Blitzer explains sarin gas as the Lexus and the Escalade ease into parking spots.

The destination is Sweet Chick, the hip fried chicken chain of which Nas is a part owner. This location, on Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg, is the original; Joey eats here so often that the restaurant started carrying organic grenadine just so it could make him the Shirley Temples he prefers. He steps inside, clad in bright red, and is greeted less like a rap star than a younger, precocious cousin. The front of the building now sports a mural dedicated to All Amerikkkan Badass, Joey's then-forthcoming new album: It shows an American flag rendered in red, white, and blue bandanas.

Inside Sweet Chick, there are waffles, breasts, thighs, biscuits, those Shirley Temples. The soundtrack is what you’d expect from an eatery that prides itself on its New York hip-hop roots: Boogie Down Productions’ “Remix for P Is Free” bleeds into the Mos Def adaptation of “Children’s Story.” Conversation at the table drifts from BDP and Black Star’s shared DNA to the roots of Southern rap, specifically the Rap-a-Lot catalog. Before long, though, Joey retreats inside his iPhone, which he holds with one hand, motionless, a foot or two from his face. He mentions something about Spotify—a fan posted a screenshot of his forthcoming album on the streaming service—and hands dart to pockets, iPhone after iPhone, until a Spotify premium subscriber can check to see if the album has accidentally been posted early. It hasn’t.

In less than 12 hours, All-Amerikkkan Badass will be available online. (Nervous hangers-on have been reassured that Kendrick Lamar’s album, widely believed to be dropping at the same time, has been pushed back seven days.) This is the last hundred meters, a sprint to finish made up of photo ops and radio spots. It’s designed to create a fever pitch for what’s officially his sophomore LP, but is really his fourth major work in the last five years. His star-making mixtape, 2012’s 1999, cast him as the millennial rapper who respected history. It was an impressive, sometimes virtuosic record, but it made it appear that Joey was looking backward for inspiration. The two records that followed—a follow-up mixtape and a debut retail album—didn’t reorient him in the public’s eye.

That’s one of the uphill battles Joey faces: He's only 22, but he’s no longer an up-and-coming talent waiting to be discovered by cool kids and would-be tastemakers. Even though All-Amerikkkan Badass marks something of a stylistic break, Joey often finds himself caught in the crossfire of his city’s (and his genre’s) internal, eternal, aesthetic squabbling. And while he should be enjoying the success of his highest-charting single to date ("Devastated")—not to mention his star turn on the acclaimed USA drama Mr. Robot—he’s uneasy with the nature of this new attention.

“It’s funny now,” he says. “I’ll talk to people and they’ll be like ‘Hey, Joey Badass, right?’ And I can kinda feel that they only know [me from] ‘Devastated.’ And then the next thing they say is, ‘Yo, I love your role on Mr. Robot.’ It’s funny, people know me from something other than music. To me, it’s like, music is my number one thing. But those fans may be looking at it like, ‘Bro, you need to be doing more acting, fuck music.’”

He stares out the window of the Lexus. “It’s real funny.”

With this album, Joey is taking on a new artistic point of view and trying to engage in earnest with the world as he sees it, today and in the future, rather than through the smeared lens of a half-remembered Clinton administration. Will fans and critics accept a pivot like this from an artist they’ve seemingly pigeonholed? There’s an exclusive concert slated for midnight.

Joey Badass

Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott was born on January 20, 1995, in East Flatbush, the only son of a Jamaican father and a mother from St. Lucia. He was raised in Bed-Stuy; his parents split up when he was five. As a kid, he was into poetry—“Langston Hughes, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou,” he says— and before too long was winning poetry contests at school. He recognized the form as “what they do on the radio.”

When Joey was 12 years old, he and a group of his cousins were playing touch football on his block when an unmarked police car barreled right into the middle of the game. “They drive right on the sidewalk, scaring us as if they’re going to run us over,” he says. “They brake hard, hop out, tell us all to get on the wall.” The kids, all around Joey’s age, lined up with their noses to concrete while the cops taunted them. “‘Y’all got guns? We caught y’all selling drugs,’ they said.” Joey’s grandmother and aunts shouted in fear, but couldn’t intervene. “These grown-ass men are touching us, feeling us,” he says. “How could you see a group of kids playing with each other, not doing anything suspicious, and think, ‘Oh, let’s run their pockets and feel on their bodies?’ For drugs and weapons—allegedly.” He looks out the Lexus window at a passing building’s broad, brick wall. “I was 12 years old, bro. I looked like a little boy.”

A couple of years later, he enrolled at Edward R. Murrow High School, a renowned center for performing and fine arts. The school’s alumni include MCA from the Beastie Boys, Marisa Tomei, Darren Aronofsky, Jean-Michel Basquiat, three chess masters, and a congresswoman, among others. Joey initially wanted to pursue acting, but was discouraged when a teacher explained to his class just how many people flock to New York every year hoping for time on screen or onstage. “I always felt like if I pursued music—which I felt was my calling—that acting would become relatively easier,” he says. He was right; as he pointed out earlier, his Mr. Robot role has introduced him to a whole new swath of fans.

It was at Murrow that Joey met Capital STEEZ, CJ Fly, Nyck Caution, and the other founding members of Pro Era. It was a loose collective of rappers, producers, and other creatives, short for “Progressive” and steeped in early- and mid-’90s New York rap aesthetics and the trickled-down residue of Five Percenter symbology. Joey’s breakthrough mixtape, 1999, came out in the summer of 2012, when he was still 17. It was a sensation. Joey’s writing was dense and knotty, barbed with the sort of wisdom that smart, quiet kids often absorb.

Joey Badass had become a known quantity, a guy who liked the ‘90s and not much else.

There was, to be sure, an element of novelty. Joey was a baby-faced high schooler who hated Lil B and rapped like Sean Price after a very long nap. He was a revivalist for an era he barely remembered, cribbed Lord Finesse beats and all. There was a two-song DOOM suite. None of that is to say Joey wasn’t, and isn’t, uniquely talented. Look at the opening verse of “Hardknock”:

Just got word from my mans on the island
He said he needed guidance,
Niggas on the street is wilding
He look to God but can’t find him
So he demand silence from the glaring sirens
The sympathy symphony,
Only thing playing is the banned violence.”

Later on that song, he lapses fully into wordy, syllable-obsessed underground syntaxes; he says things like “I take the competition out commission with my composition” and “Those Berettas led us to the lettuce/Relish fetishes, menaces want the senator’s percentages.” But he’s also rapping buoyantly, and when he says he’s “got a Glock 40 in a politician’s mouth,” you more or less believe him.

1999 got rave reviews, and Joey was earmarked as one of the rappers to watch for in his generation. Yet as can be seen through any number of case studies—see, from the past three years alone, G Herbo, Boogie, Shy Glizzy, etc.—there’s little coverage of artists who are no longer rookies, but have yet to become bona fide stars. The criticism of their work tends to back them into a niche: Glizzy reviews are about D.C. rap in a broad sense; Joey Badass is the young guy with the backward gaze. To a bulk of the rap-listening public, Joey Badass had become a known quantity, a guy who liked the'90s and not much else. By his third full-length, he wasn’t an overachieving high schooler anymore. Even if B4.DA.$$ had been a radical shift in style, it likely would have taken the press and general public months, maybe years, to catch up. As things stood, he was a sharp kid making minor tweaks and marginal improvements, and that’s not how you sell magazines.

To change trajectory, Joey needed to break form. And, to his credit, this is exactly what he’s done on All-Amerikkkan Badass. If you take the record—especially its A-side—you’ll find track after track of coherent, sober writing. The four-song run from “For My People” through the radio hit “Devastated” is so consistent in this approach—each sounds like a bonafide pop breakout without sacrificing intelligence—that it doubles as a resume for Joey as a songwriter in a major label’s pop sessions. All-Amerikkkan Badass is a curious case in that it’s almost certainly an artist’s best work despite, for long stretches, downplaying what had been that artist’s calling card in the past. But even with those pop sensibilities, it’s also a political album for political times—less inward focus, more protest.

Joey Badass

“How’s the music sound—does it sound like a cacophony, or does it sound like bliss?” Joey asks. He and his crew are rushing to get Milk Studios, at 15th Street near the Hudson River, ready for his album release night performance.

In the Lexus, on the way to SoHo, Joey’s album plays through the stereo. His relationship with New York radio has long been complicated, and has actually landed him in the news. During an interview with Ebro Darden, Laura Stylez, and Peter Rosenberg on Hot 97, Joey first presented the station with a Gold plaque for “Devastated,” then took the hosts to task over the state of New York radio, both broadly (“Shit popping for months, and radio don’t know about it until five or six months later”) and very specifically (“We need the new, young Ebro...we need the new Peter Rosenberg, man. Y’all holding their seats”).

Now a few days after that interview, Joey clarifies his intentions. “When I talk about New York radio, I’m passionate about that topic because I’m one of those people who they put the pressure on,” he says. “They didn’t really believe in me at first. And I fought to prove myself. That’s why I am where I am now, where I’m able to look them in the face and be able to say that shit and not be kicked off air. I’ve been through every little obstacle that they try to throw at me, every little excuse that they try to give when artists aren’t getting played on radio. I’ve been through all that and I survived it all. Me being that person, I think it’s important that I deliver that message, to inspire people to do the same thing. If anything, let me be the living proof of that for you: You can do it, too. Just don’t ever give up on yourself.”

"You can do it, too. Just don’t ever give up on yourself.”

About an hour later, Joey, his team, and about a dozen people tasked with producing tonight’s concert and its attendant promotional materials are milling around that SoHo loft. There are vegetable platters and steak sandwiches; a barber gives haircuts with terrifying precision. News alerts light up three or four iPhones. “Jesus,” I say, reflexively. “We’re bombing Syria again.”

The news of 59 Tomahawk missiles raining down on Syrian airfields has more or less washed away any other discussion on our Twitter timelines, and now we all look like Joey did at the chicken spot, phones in one hand, motionless, a foot or two from our faces. The first person to break paralysis is a man in a black Pro Era jacket, who launches into a diatribe about how September 11th was coordinated by the Bush administration, about how buildings that size should only collapse that way in a controlled demolition, and, yes, about the theoretical heat of jet fuel. Everyone nods politely and mutters in agreement, out of deference to the man’s expertise (he says he’s worked in construction for years), out of social decorum, and out of shock. Blak’s voice snaps us back. It’s time to go.

Joey Badass

The sidewalk outside of Milk is a shoulder-to-shoulder wall of fans, most of whom will never make it inside, but will stick around to catch glimpses through the windows. I ask Joey which album he was most excited for as a kid. “Graduation,” he says, referring to Kanye West's third album, released in 2007. “I could feel it. I could already identify the shit that was here to stay long-term. I had my mom take me to the record store, and that was the first time that I actually bought a record for myself, with my saved Christmas money, you know? Real shit.” He was 12 years old.

When he hits the stage, Joey is something close to magnetic—as to be expected from someone who’s been playing rap shows since before he was old enough to vote, is jarringly good-looking in person, and may be on his way to a extracurricular career as a TV star. Closed events like this, where the drinks are free and the crowd features more industry professionals than actual, ticket-buying fans, are usually dull. But by the third song of his set, Joey’s moved a group of people who use “network” as a verb to the point where they look like living, breathing concertgoers.

Days later, All-Amerikkkan Badass arrived at No. 5 on Billboard, just like B4.DA.$$; it sold the equivalent of just over 50,000 units, just like B4.DA.$$. It’s unclear whether the album will be remembered more vividly than his last one, just like it’s unclear whether his barbs for New York’s radio hosts will materially change that culture. But looking around Milk that night, or hearing “Devastated” and “Temptations” from passing cars the next morning, you’d come to the conclusion that something might have finally shifted.

Joey Badass

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