As a hip-hop fan, I have my own personal tastes. As a hip-hop writer, I have to be open-minded. On my high horse, I consider myself a purveyor of underground hip-hop and serve as a gateway between peers and the music yet to be discovered by them.
There’s underground hip-hop that’s gritty, rough, rugged and raw. There’s underground hip-hop that’s refined, that tries to fit in with the trends of the mainstream. At times, there are many styles of music (hip-hop and otherwise) that I acquire and try to pass on to my friends as sort of a middle-man between this overlooked art and hungry consumers of anything new and different.
Enter stage right, a young teen from the community of Flatbush in the New York borough of Brooklyn. It’s 2012 and this kid pops up out of the abyss with a project titled “1999,” beckoning nostalgia simply by the letters on the cover.
After one spin, you can instantly recognize the ’90s hip-hop sound. Here’s a kid, barely out of adolescence, who is drawing on influences of a generation before him while simultaneously displaying his sharp lyrical abilities and definitive voice over smooth, sometimes jazzy, old-school instrumentals.
Fast-forward to now and Joey Badass is the young leader of a collective of hip-hop artists known as Pro Era. In the three years since he burst onto the scene, Joey has dropped another solo project, as well as verse after verse of microphone slaughter. The rapper, also known as OG Swank, has held the torch for Brooklyn hip-hop and defined a generation of young emcees across the country.
You see, after Joey Badass popped up on the scene, even though he borrowed his sound from those decades before him, other up and coming rappers started biting his style. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to hear a new song by a trying artist that sounds exactly like a track by the subject of this piece. That makes Joey more than a modern hip-hop icon. He’s a trendsetter.
Hip-hop’s content is presently all over the place. There’s some seriously heavy material that may not be as popular as the less-conscious or less-serious tracks that crack the charts. West coast rapper Hopsin recently said in an interview with The Huffington Post that a big problem with rappers of the present is that their talents are not so far off of the listeners themselves. Hopsin explained:
“In the past, when you heard rappers not everyone thought ‘I could do that’ because you saw the skill it took. Now, when you hear what’s out you think you can do it too. It shouldn’t be that. I feel like it should be the same way a competitive sport is. If you ever watched Kobe [Bryant] playing basketball, you never sit and think, ‘I could easily do that.’ You don’t want to watch a sport thinking it’s that easy unless you’re a professional. But rap these days makes you think it takes no talent, and I hate that!”
The point that Hopsin is making is so relevant when you think of the chart-topping rap songs of recent years. But Joey Badass is different. Like few others, the Brooklyn emcee raps in ways practically unimaginable, and he’s better than ever on his latest release “B4.DA.$$” (pronounced “before the money”).
Joey has always been known for his bewildering metaphors and technical delivery that make you listen to his music five times over before finally catching at least some of what is hidden in the rapper’s flows. The album wastes little time in showcasing the lyrical talents of the rapper as he spits on one of the earlier tracks, “Paper Trail$:”
“Sitting back plotting, jotting information on my nation. / Really started from the bottom, boy, cotton, / But they still planting plantations, we keep buying in. / Closed-minded men, pride is higher than the prices on your Pradas and / Balenciagas, balance my soccer with the Henny agua.”
In the first few bars of the song, the Pro Era head touches on his rise in hip-hop, African-American history, consumerism and to top it all off, a good ol’-fashioned signature metaphor. Hip-hop fans will be hard-pressed to find a rapper today so lyrically gifted at such a young age.
Yes, I have my personal tastes, which Joey Badass fits in. And yes, I have a duty to be as unbiased as possible when discovering and critiquing music as a writer. But what is true for Joey Bad is that few rappers are as commercially appealing and lyrically powerful as him, and that’s what makes Joey and his new album so great.
It is Joey’s momentous debut. It’s his hello to the world of hip-hop. It’s the hair-rising, jaw-dropping, good vibes that leaders of hip-hop’s Golden Age paved when laying down the road for emcees like Joey to shine on. “B4.DA.$$” is one of the greatest hip-hop debuts of the last few years and certainly serves as a testament to the beauty, power and skill required to be a real hip-hop talent. If there’s one thing we can take away from the narratives, the articulate wordplay and the stunning production on “B4.DA.$$,” it’s that Joey Badass isn’t just a young emcee on the rise, he’s a poet adjusting his laurel crown.