Wednesday, January 28, 2015

album review: 'b4.da.$$' by joey bada$$

Of the many, many album requests that I get every day, this is probably the most requested album thus far in 2015 - for a rapper who landed on the XXL Freshmen list but had no major airplay singles and was actually preferring to stay independent than sign to a major label. A new rapper erupting out of Brooklyn, affiliated with Big K.R.I.T. and Mick Jenkins with critically acclaimed mixtapes and a visceral sound and flow that definitely grabbed attention.

Yep, it's time to talk about Joey Bada$$, affiliated with Pro Era, who erupted into the game around 2012 with his hit mixtape 1999 that drew a lot of attention from hip-hop heads and critics and started getting him major hype. As it was for me, Joey Bada$$ always struck me a very good rapper with a lot of talent and definitely a strong technical lyricist, but I was waiting for him to put together a more cohesive project that rose beyond his old school boom-bap flavour. Because sure, I definitely preferred that more lyrical focus that he took in terms of technical craft, but I wanted to see what was it that separated him from his influences. He followed 1999 with the even more slick and melodic Summer Knights, and sure, it was enjoyable, but there was a certain lack of immediacy and punch to it that meant it wasn't a tape I was inclined to revisit. Definitely not bad and I appreciated Joey Bada$$' increased maturity, but after his explosive presence on Mick Jenkins' The Water[s] mixtape last year, I knew I wanted to see Joey Bada$$ bring the same fire to a project of his own. So I took the time to check out his debut album B4.DA.$$ - how is it?

Well, here's the thing - B4.DA.$$ is a damn good album that I definitely enjoy and has a lot of the elements that should really click for me, and there are definitely a fair number of great songs on it - but initially it didn't quite click with me. I could appreciate the technical construction, but for as much as I respected him as a rapper, Joey Bada$$ just wasn't clicking with me. So I went in deep to try and untangle what he was really trying to say with this record and listened to it another few times... and I'm pleased to say I got it, and definitely appreciate this album a whole lot more.

So let's start with Joey Bada$$ himself - and as an MC, I like the guy. The one word that immediately leaps to mind when describing him is versatile, from fire-spitting to more downbeat chilling tracks to more personal introspection, the last of which I wasn't really aware Joey could pull off. And it helps that he has a distinctive voice in hip-hop - slightly hoarse, a little slurred, but still displaying a level of crisp calculation as he lays down bars after bars. He's got a knack for varying his flow and accent, often adding more of a Caribbean flavour, and even though he can't really sing or hold much of a note, he is a surprisingly expressive performer. If I were to nitpick here, I do wish that Joey Bada$$ would deliver a little more visceral energy, but it fits what this album is trying to do, so I'll take it. 

The odd thing is that I'd probably make a similar complaint about most of his production and instrumentation - which, don't get me wrong, the majority of it is great. Joey Bada$$ got himself a slew of acclaimed producers in the vein of DJ Premier, J.Dilla, Hit-Boy, and Statik Selektah and recruited singers like BJ The Chicago Kid, Chronixx, and Maverick Sabre. One quick thing to note is that he didn't choose to get many guest rappers on this album - he got Dyemond Lewis from his Pro Era team, but outside of that, the only guest star is Raury, who does fine enough with a pretty aggressively fast flow over a pretty difficult beat. But coming back to the production, the majority of it is pretty typical of Joey Bada$$ - very reminiscent of the 90s, filled with warm organic grit, rough-edged percussion, and chopped up jazzy samples. And as someone who likes the majority of this production, there are some great beats on this album - DJ Premier's mournful piano melody against a steady ominous bassline with hints of horns on 'Paper Trails', the sandy cavernous pianos and cymbals of 'Big Dusty', the muted guitars and crisp snares of 'Like Me', the ebbing waves of samples of echoing voices, horns, synths, and gunshots of 'Belly Of The Beast' against a steady low beat, the heavy boom-bap flavour of 'No. 99' with the organs and whirling flutters, the crackling warmth of the pianos against the tinny vocal sample on 'On & On' with one of the better chorus, and especially the oldschool, slightly lighter feel of 'O.C.B.' and 'Curry Chicken'. The beat that has attracted the most controversy on this album is probably 'Escape 120', which starts off with a muted organ progression before kicking into a mid-90s scratchy dance progression, and I'm not sure if it's the more muted textures or how neither Joey or Raury ride the beat particularly well, but it doesn't quite come together. Granted, the instrumentation that really rubbed me the wrong way was on 'Black Beetles' - a damn shame, because I really liked the lyrics, but that squealing wail of a melody that came in on the chorus throughout the track just grated on my nerves.

But while I could also nitpick some of the pitch-shifted vocals - just a pet peeve of mine - the production is pretty much great - but one thing that will immediately become apparent is that it's not especially upbeat. In fact, most of these beats are downright melancholy, not so much laidback but almost depressing. And it's an odd feel for the record, especially when you start digging into the lyrics. Now on first or even the fourth or fifth listen, Joey Bada$$'s content doesn't really seem to be all that special or different than your standard hardcore hip-hop artist calling back to the 90s. The bars are aggressive, slamming the haters, describing his come-up, full of fire - but while I appreciated the meticulous construction of his wordplay, I wasn't initially seeing anything all that new. And when paired with instrumentation that was this downbeat, almost depressing, one could start to understand the reviews that said this album felt long or a chore to listen through. 

But the devil is in the details and hidden almost in plain sight, because there's a reason Joey Bada$$'s production is this melancholic - mostly because it's designed to create a very specific mood. And that mood is loneliness, from rejection of major labels or achieving success and watching his circle of close friends he can trust dwindle or from his small immediate family, to whom he's very close - I mean, there's a song on this album called 'Only Child Blues'. Coupled with those feelings of isolation is also a surprising sense of humility - Joey Bada$$ is palpably aware he's not the best rapper in the game - although his technical wordplay is definitely on the upper end, at least in my opinion - and instead of using that to garner a false sense of sympathy, he instead uses it to enhance his populism, not disparaging his own accomplishments but just wishing he could connect more with his audience or with his faith, trying to find that common bond. It's strikingly mature and down-to-earth, and with lyrics like 'money is the root of all evil / yet money is the route of all people', he implies how easy it is to be swayed yet you still need to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. And what I really love about this album is the ending - now that Joey Bada$$ has had success, he's not going to wallow in it or whine about what he's lost or try to manipulate or change the perception of himself - knowing he really can't change much - but he's going to reach out and try to help the community from where he came - knowing actions speak a lot louder than words. To quote, 'You've got to give to give and then you give back', a lyric not just reinforcing that connection to his mother but also to his community and fans and to his drive to become a better rapper.

In other words, B4.DA.$$ is a tricky sort of record, and one I reckon can be enjoyed in multiple ways. If you're nostalgic for the more conscious sound of 90s hip-hop, you'll definitely enjoy this record, but dig deeper and you find an MC who is showing more layers and humanity than some of those MCs ever did without needing to succumb to cheap gangsta cliches. Coupled with great technical skills, some great hooks, and a message that finally managed to connect with me in a potent way, this record is an easy 8/10 and a very high recommendation. It might take a while to really sink in, but trust me, B4.DA.$$ does plenty to establish Joey Bada$$ as a real presence in New York and in hip-hop - definitely check it out.

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