Jonah Bromwich is the new Shabaam Sahdeeq

It took me a while to realize that Joey Badass’s new mixtape, 1999 is generally pretty good. This was partially due to the hype bubble that misidentified Joey as a next big thing as opposed to a low-key, breezy, summer night rapper.  Good music wins out, even if I didn’t initially want to admit it.  My epiphany arrived when Joey opened for Ab-Soul and I found myself eager to hear “FromDaTomb$,” which had been rattling around in my subconscious far too often for a cut from an album that I had initially dismissed.

The hyperbolic comparisons to Nas seize on that good old ’94 sound, but Joey shares little lyrical terrain with Esco. He prefers realist reflections to impressionistic portraits of his surroundings. And that lyrical content is the weakest part of his act right now, as he frequently resorts to banal platitudes and re-imaginings of previously conquered territory. His other chief problem is his charity in sharing the mic with his less talented friends. Most of the badly rapped or stupid verses on 1999 (and a lot exist) come from other rappers in his Pro Era crew.

Even on his best songs — see the preternaturally smooth “Waves” — his lyrics barely paint a picture. “All we try to do is do good, put on my hood when I walk through hoods cuz these niggas these days is loco, you get it in your vocals if you ain’t a local” doesn’t say much, or give any new perspective. That the hood is dangerous can be said in a thousand different ways—the characters that make it dangerous can be sketched, the fear sparked by that danger can be described, etc. Not much of that is happening on 1999.

Yet that same line is an example of one of Joey’s biggest strengths. The internal rhymes there are as intricate as those of Joey’s idol Doom. Later in the song, Joey refers to himself in the third person, directly imitating the villain. His facile flow allows him to string rhymes together and achieve maximum sticking power. On paper, “these niggas, these days” doesn’t look like much, but something as simple as the repetition of the word “these” sounds masterful through headphones.

Joey’s flow encourages another strength: nimble wordplay that allows Joey to pivot towards a new route once he dead-ends on any given subject. On “World Domination,” he raps “NY’s behind my ears and my peers so my voice behind this snares is the only way they hear, what I got behind my membrane, but I been smoking chem strain, so lately I’ve been having a hard time with remembering, to be patient.” Again, there isn’t much substance, but topics are picked and dropped with such an entertaining ease that its hard not to start memorizing lyrics.

The final strength is Joey’s taste in beats — those recycled by old masters like Doom and Lord Finesse as well as his own crew’s. It’s these beats that allow Joey to shine—they’re simple and pretty, with melodic loops and plenty of big pockets. This sound is perfect for a rapper like Joey, who isn’t quite fiery enough to gain your attention the first time you listen to him. His ease with these beats combined with those little scraps of melody prove tough to resist. Even though Joey still has a ways to go before he validates the attention, 1999 hits a sweet spot that’ll have me checking for his next 12″ MP3.

ZIP: Joey Bada$$ – 1999 (Left-Click)

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