I don’t understand Joey Bada$$. I mean, I understand his music just fine. If you’ve listened to rap for long enough, you understand it, too. It’s the sort of warm, dusty, sun-faded boom-bap that New York rap crews were cranking out at a furious rate in, say, 1995. But what I don’t understand is how Joey Bada$$ exists. Because, as Corban writes in his BTW piece on Joey, Joey was born in 1995. He’s exactly the same age as the music he’s consciously evoking. What confounds me is that a high school kid from Flatbush is making music this era-specific, and, more importantly, that he’s so good at it. Even Joey references are as old as him. Here and there on his new debut mixtape 1999, he’ll quote a little piece of an old song in the way that only people intimately familiar with those songs would do: The breathless grunts from the intro to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation,” the “it’s the reeeeal” from the intro to Gang Star’s “You Know My Steez.” On “Righteous Minds,” he says, “I never knew the world could be this mad / Only vision I had of sex was Color Me Badd,” but Color Me Badd’s hits about sex came out before he was born. It’s uncanny, like he’s treating the mixtape as an actual time machine, only acknowledging a reality that still existed when he was a toddler. And when his entire Pro Era crew shows up on the tape-closing 12-minute posse cut “Suspect,” it sure sounds like there are a ton of kids doing the exact same thing as him. So: Is this a new thing? Or are Joey and his friends just an outlying radar-blip, like the group of kids I knew in high school who suddenly decided that they were all mods, riding Vespas and buying white jeans and shit?
Well, whatever. I don’t have to understand Joey Bada$$; I’m just glad he exists. Joey’s strength isn’t in being, specifically, a retro rapper. We’ve already got plenty of those; New York is overrun with aging legends mad at the way trend-shifts have made them obsolete, still cranking out their old-style music to diminishing returns. But Joey’s worth your attention because he’s just a very good rapper, an introverted stylist who’s got his own style completely figured out. In talking about Joey, a whole lot of people are bringing up Illmatic-era Nas, and the comparison makes sense. Joey’s got that same innate grasp of meter and that same pained old-beyond-his-years thousand-yard stare, and Nas wasn’t much older than him when he made Illmatic. But the comparison that jumps to mind most easily for me is Smif-N-Wessun, back when they made Dah Shinin. Joey’s got a wizened husk of a voice, just like Tek and Steele did, and his heretofore-unknown producers (primarily Chuck Strangers) mine the same ancient unquantized breakbeats and languidly mournful horn samples as Da Beatminerz did on that album. The production is so evocative that when Joey switches into rhyming over old beats from DOOM or Dilla or Lord Finesse, I almost don’t notice.
An important thing to note about Joey Bada$$: He doesn’t sound like a teenager, the way the Odd Future kids or Azealia Banks or Chief Keef or any number of other young rappers do. He’s got moments of hungry force in his delivery, but more often he’s sedate, cool with the assurance that he knows how to rap circles around his peers. That’s not a teenager’s approach to rapping, but he pulls it off absolutely. Another important thing: Unlike so many of the great rappers in New York’s suddenly-resurgent rap underground, he doesn’t radiate cooler-than-the-room snark. Guys like Das Racist and Action Bronson and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire are funny, and they know it. Joey’s not, and he doesn’t try to be. Instead, he laces his boasts with an appealing sort of humble sincerity: “One day, I’m tryna have a wife and kids, so I just can’t live my life like this / And I ain’t tryna know what lifeless is, so I just can’t live my life like this.” He has nothing to do with the music happening around him, like he’s only just emerging from a bomb shelter stocked with videotaped episodes of Rap City. He’s a young man unstuck from time, but holy shit can he ever rap.
Download 1999 for free here.