Thursday, April 13, 2017

album review: 'all-amerikkkan bada$$' by joey bada$$

I have to be honest: I wasn't really sure where Joey Bada$$ was going to be taking this new sophomore project.

I mean, I wasn't surprised he was pivoting towards more of a political, socially aware sound as buzz was suggesting - it seemed a natural stepping point, especially given that his mixtapes and full-length debut in 2015 made that progression seem inevitable. After all, many of those older MCs he idolized in his production and flows and style did pivot to making more conscious music, it's a sensible step.

But here's the other truth: I haven't exactly listened to a lot of Joey Bada$$ since he dropped his full-length debut in very early 2015. Part of this might have been bad timing: I covered his record in between hip-hop albums from Lupe Fiasco and Doomtree, and I have to admit he may have gotten overshadowed in my mind and on my playlists because of it... which isn't really fair, because he's a great rapper with a knack for textured, old-school East-Coast production and some insightful, layered bars. And for a lot of people it's probably going to happen again, this time with Kendrick dropping his newest album off the back of a huge single. In short, Joey Bada$$ has had some rotten luck in terms of timing, and thus I wanted to ensure I gave this record its due before everyone forgets about it like what happened with Drake a few weeks ago. And while I bet for a bunch of you that was the first time you thought about More Life in a minute, let's stick to the subject at hand: how is All-Amerikkkan Bada$$?

Here's the weird thing: I can see this being simultaneously an accessible and yet divisive record among fans new and old - hell, probably even among a lot of critics too. And it's a funny thing, because in comparing this to B4.DA.$$, I like All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ about as much as I do that debut - in that it's a great hip-hop album that showcases a lot of good taste, sharp writing, and great production - but I like it for very different reasons. Part of this was inevitable because of the change in direction of the content, but I'd argue it runs deeper than that, and I can predict while it might not have the same punchline density that attracted some fans, if they can accept the shift they'll find a lot to love on this record.

So let's start with that shift, and a significant part of it begins with Joey Bada$$ himself. Longtime listeners will immediately notice that for as many double entendres as he tends to cram into his bars and punchlines, there's a fair bit less of them this time around - he's aiming to be more straightforward and effective, speak directly to the political subjects at hand and even bring along a more melodic approach for the hooks. That's not saying the punchlines or double entendres aren't there - especially on the darker second half of the record where he brings in more guest stars and the albums moves to more 'conventional' Joey Bada$$ material - but you can tell Joey Bada$$ is much more concerned at ensuring the message is clear and comprehensive. And honestly, I'm a big fan of this approach, especially when making more political art, because it enables his statements to both feel more populist and get directly to the point. And what's telling is that he necessarily shows how such a message can become both weapon and duty - 'For My People' sets the stage of that dispirited but realistic trudge forward incredibly well, and following it with 'Temptation' to show how his own position isn't just fraught with vices, but by a system stacked to paint him as a villain despite - from everything I can tell - genuine altruism. And he's under no illusions that this isn't a complex, multi-faceted problem, from systemic poverty to failures of education to police abuse to politicians who have repeatedly let down his community and enable the abuse of power, to highlight on songs like 'Y U Don't Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)' how it can feel like black people aren't even wanted by their own country, flipping what could be a song about unrequited love into something much bigger.

Now I've heard some critics and fans criticize this record for seeming, well, a little too straightforward at points, retracing political ground that has already been touched on without adding new texture or ideas, which can feel even more apparent given his preference for an older sound and production style. And while I guess I could see some credence in that comment, there's several things I could say against that right out of the gate. For one, it's very telling that people bring up these comments when it touches on social commentary for which they're expected to engage or feel bad for not engaging - in comparison to the umpteenth banger that asks and demands nothing - and for another, it does a disservice to spots where Joey Bada$$ does bring in more subtlety and in his commentary. Take 'Super Predator', getting a solid verse from Styles P - where the hell has he been - and it's telling how Joey Bada$$ draws the parallel between how the more aggressive he becomes in his naturally competitive brand of hip-hop, the more the system is inclined to view him as a threat, the sort of contradiction that doesn't help in a system set against him. Or take the extended closing track 'Amerikkkan Idol', where he identifies how they need to make an effort to enact change and revolution, but they have to be really damn careful how they do it as there are certain racist elements in the government that are just looking for the next excuse to crack down on a population that's being fed lies - and again, given some of the blatant elements of white nationalism infecting the federal government like syphilis, it's not like he's wrong here. And that's another point that needs to be stressed - Joey Bada$$ might be walking a road that his idol Tupac helped pave, but it's not like the systemic issues have gone away, and it's no surprise this album ends on a dark note seeming to imply without change, things are only going to get worse! That said, there are points where I feel that this record can skim close to conspiracy theory territory, with the chemtrails reference on 'Babylon', or that can feel a little scattershot, like the J.Cole collaboration on 'Legendary' that seems to emphasizing a drive for transcendence that J.Cole's self-doubt and questioning seems to render a little awkward. Then there's 'Devastated'... honestly, it just isn't in the same ballpark conceptually or lyrically to match the rest of this project, easily the most commercial and forgettable cut there. Hell, compare to 'Rockabye Baby' with ScHoolboy Q, which might as well be the spiritual successor to 'Gang Bang Anyway' from The Game two years ago, which remains one of my favourite gangsta rap songs of the decade and highlights similar themes of black unification and responsibilities the Crips and Bloods should have to come together and fight the bigger enemy.

But circling back to Tupac, it was also something that crept through in a lot of the production and sound of this record, calling back to a very mid-90s tone of gangsta rap that adds deeper, more lush tones of jazz rap might not have the same grit as B4.DA.$$, but still has texture and managed to pick up some of his best ever melodies and hooks. And the great thing is how effective the flow and build-up through the first few songs are - hints of gentle liquid organ and synth tones building against a thicker bass and drum pattern that never feels the need to get too hard, all against a cushion of backing vocals and layered horns and touches of guitar, all throughout 'Good Morning Amerikkka', 'For My People', finally hitting its biggest climax against the thicker bass on 'Temptation' and the utterly heartbreaking samples that bookend that song, just a phenomenal way to open a record. I will say I was a little disappointed that 'Land Of The Free' couldn't quite hold up the momentum thanks to that slowed outro that did linger a little long, or the persistent hollow feeling of the mix across 'Devastated' even despite a pretty slick guitar line, but between the airy balance of the bass, strings, and touches of backing vocals against phenomenal drum progression and some sweet horns on 'Y U Don't Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)', things are quickly back on track. From the record does take a turn into darker territory, courtesy of the sharper piano sample and menacing bass on 'Rockabye Baby' or the crackling atonal keyboard samples against the stormy darkness, noisier beat and scratches of 'Ring The Alarm' - although, I have to admit, when we got Statik Selektah producing for 'Super Predator' with its lush horns and great snare'n'bass, I don't mind the sonic pivot at all! Hell, I just wish I felt his more damp production on 'Legendary' clicked for me better with its horns samples, but thankfully DJ Khalil manages to blend the guitar tones against the echoing kickdrum amazingly well on the closer 'Amerikkkan Idol' to hit a killer conclusion, especially with the touches of glitch and vocal effects to emphasize the bleak finale.

In short, if you can't tell, I'm really digging this project and actually had a fair bit more to say about it than I expected - and the sad fact is that, again, I think it's going to be overlooked, not just by those anticipating Kendrick but by those who'll dismiss consciousness because it meant a smoother, more groove-heavy, possibly even more accessible experience that had a few less punchlines that were clever for their own sake. But as a whole, I'd argue this is a great project, easily netting an 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation if you appreciate this brand of conscious old-school hip-hop with great hooks and phenomenal vibes. And if Joey Badass wants to continue his pivot in this direction, maybe opt to take that storytelling even deeper with a conscious angle.. I'm definitely looking forward to it, so for sure check this out.

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