Jonah Bromwich is ashamed to admit that, perhaps due to its cover design, he still thinks of this album as being titled Before Da Ass.
In a 2004 review of Madvillainy in The New Yorker, the Internet’s new annotator-in-chief compared hip-hop traditionalism to historical reenactment. “Their work,” Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of lyrical boom-bappers, “is not much different from that of Renaissance-fair revivalists dancing around the Maypole.” His contempt encapsulated what was quickly becoming the prevailing attitude toward anyone working in a style seen as being played-out. And indeed, over the past decade, there have been few terms more detrimental to a new hip-hop artist than that of “revivalist.”
Frere-Jones’ point was a vital one at the time; to call out conservatism in hip-hop (in a transition to promoting an album that still sounds progressive). But a decade on, what could be more absolutist, more reactionary, than to place a permanent ban on lyrical boom-bap? Gotham artists who had trouble avoiding the revivalist tag when they first emerged have shown that it was foolish to dismiss them as insubstantial clones of the original greats. Ka and Action Bronson, for instance, may have worked within an old mold, but they’ve produced new shapes, new hybrids and new ideas. But another rapper, whose clear debt to nineties hip-hop was somewhat negated by his age and his extreme talent, has had more trouble shedding the label.
When Joey Bada$$ first emerged on the 2012 mixtape Summer Knights, his flow was astounding — his undeniable smoothness, his facility moving from one bar to the next, allowed him to change topics on a dime, to rope all kinds of subject matter into his songs. This ability, not just to rap so well, but to swing so smoothly from idea to idea, made him a rapper to watch the age of sixteen. Of course, as with any prospect, there were rough edges: Joey was married not only to the style of the mid-90’s but also its endlessly repeating subject matter. He rapped for the sake of rapping, and didn’t have much of substance to say, which accentuated the feeling that maybe what he was doing was simple retread, nothing more. But at the same time, his ability to rap made you want to wait for the other skills to develop.
Joey retains his raw talent on his new album, B4.Da.$$; listen to the internal rhyming on the first verse of “Belly of the Beast,” and “No. 99” or the last verse of “Hazeus View.” He’s also developed some new tricks in the last few years, many of which he reveals quickly in the course of the album’s first side. “Piece of Mind” is the first of the songs here to show some skill at building a sense of place. An early mention of walks in the park near Lefferts Gardens allows Joey to set a tone that merges nicely with Freddie Joachim’s dusky beat, whose analogue touch is reminiscent of Oddisee on Rock Creek Park. The Henry Mancini sample on the very next song, “Big Dusty” finds the rapper shifting into a patois, a tribute to his Caribbean heritage, which goes a long way towards the leavening the tedium of a song that’s at least a minute too long.
But while at 19, Joey still has that skill that made people sit up and take notice, other talents have yet to develop. There’s still very little substance in his rhymes, and his ability to pivot subject matter has become a double-edged sword, allowing him to escape any particular thought without having to do the work of fleshing it out more fully. There are not many songs here where a theme is focused upon. He may be flowing, but too often, he seems as if he isn’t writing.
That means that nice turns of phrase like “they couldn’t even outshine my shadow” or “facts like the chat under the cap of the Snapple” don’t get the kind of conceptual cushion that would render them memorable. And though there are plenty of lovely beats here (Freddie Joachim is terrific throughout and the Pro Era Producers Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers continue to prove their talents), there’s not much in the musical department to make you stand up and take notice. Older producers like Statik Selektah and DJ Premier mostly contribute lifeless copies of their better work, which is a shame given that those producers, particularly Primo, seem on paper to be such good matches for Joey.
I used to think that the reason Joey didn’t say much is that he didn’t have much to say. But that’s clearly not the case on B4.Da.$$. He’s straining at subject matter here, and occasionally comes awfully close to pinning it down. The whole album is shot through with sadness for his deceased friend and collaborator Capital STEEZ, but a lack of specifics keep Joey from delivering a fresh portrait of grief. And it’s clear that Joey wants to talk about race to some degree — there is a sense of burgeoning political awareness on the gorgeously-produced “Black Beetles” and the promising “No. 99.” These are just two of the handful of tracks on which Joey shows that he still wields the potential to revive the style he loves, to take boom-bap out of the past with strong subject matter and a voice that begs to be heard. But it would take a force of personality to bring what has become bougie restaurant’s background music back into the revolutionary fore and unfortunately, despite a clear effort and some growth, Joey still has a ways to go.