Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Joey Badass - B4.DA.$$ Review

If I'm being honest I've always had a little disdain towards Joey Badass. Unwarranted, mind you. But whenever I hear of an artist attempting to re-live 90's Hip-Hop through their voice, flow, content, beats, and style my eyes roll into the back of my head. I'm all for advancing the art form, and while Joey's sound, along with a litany of other young-heads replicating the 90's despite never reaching the age of 10 in the decade, don't restrict the genre in any way, it bores it, reducing its worth to imitation. Ironic considering many of these artists vouch for creativity and target those who lack it, despite having none of their own. This was evident the minute I heard 'Survival Tactics,' an intense track featuring two highly-skilled emcees, but sounded plucked out of the Mobb Deep era like nothing else before. I fully expected Joey's debut, the brilliantly titled B4.DA.$$, to continue this trend. And while, in many, if not most aspects, it does, Joey's eye for beats, ability to seep in various sub-genres, and overall technical skill make his debut a sight to behold for an artist whose chances of falling towards monotony couldn't have been higher.

A young emcee like Joey will often face comparisons to others who came before him, namely Nas and his critically-lauded debut Illmatic. It's pretty obvious from a glance at the track list that Joey took those comparisons seriously, forming his own all-star cast of producers to fill the stat sheet of B4.DA.$$. From Statik Selektah to Hit-Boy, DJ Premier to J Dilla and The Roots, the accolades that run through the boards deserve a mention on their own. These aren't throwaway beats either, Joey's taste for beat-making has landed him with some pretty spectacular choices, ones that blur the lines as to what dominating genre in the 90's, either gritty street-rap or soulful peace rap, the 20-year old rapper aimed to replicate. The distinction is made throughout the record, as it seems the style of production shifts from hard-nosed, minimalist boom-bap, with tracks like 'Big Dusty,' to soaring, A Tribe Called Quest-esque soul that hinges on emotional instrumentation, like violins and trumpets, as seen on closer 'Curry Chicken.' The majority of beats succeed in their ability to remain unique whilst being confined to the albums limitations. Nothing here is structured out of the ordinary, in fact it may be one of the most unoriginal line-ups in a while, but there's enough variety in beats and enjoyment in flows to make the monotony of 14 tracks all within two minutes of each other bearable.

Unfortunately, Joey's devotion to 90's street rap in all forms includes its content, which, for two decades now, has remained trivial and narrow-minded. It shocks me, and somewhat impresses me, that typical street artists can make so many songs about the same topics, beaten to death years before them. From violence in the streets, to drugs and prostitution, with money ruling it all, B4.DA.$$ is about as bland content-wise as you can get. Throw in a heap of braggadocios rhymes, and chime in with some internal self-reflection and you've created 90% of Gangster rap albums. Nothing here deviates from that tried-and-true formula, and while that's mildly oft-putting it's not in the least bit unexpected. Thankfully for Joey, where everyone else fails at retaining poignancy in a sea of reiteration, he thrives due to how he tells it and at the pace in which he does. If there's one thing he could be labeled prodigy with it's his ability to flow over any beat he puts his lyrics on, stringing words together with ease, his annunciation a clear indication of his mastery of the english language. On songs like 'Christ Conscious' Joey bounces over the beat, altering his alliteration, going from his light, somewhat raspy voice to a grizzled vet.

With the aforementioned song included, there's numerous tracks on here worthy of the merit bestowed upon them. The clear-cut favorite for most is the D.J. Premier produced 'Paper Trail$,' and rightfully so. Playing off Wu-Tang's 'C.R.E.A.M.,' interpolating "cash rules everything around me" with "cash ruin everything around me" is only the tip of Joey's monumental knock on wealth destroying his streets. It's refreshing to hear an up and coming rap star who doesn't just boast about doing it for the love of the game, he actually shows it. And while the middle third of the album stalls a bit with tracks like 'Like Me' and 'Belly Of The Beast' that sound like filler, the last six are truly a welcome finale to a rather impressive debut album. 'Escape 120' departs from the typical sounds to speed things up, with a rambunctious guest verse from Raury capping things off, only to revert to 'Black Beetles,' a mellow track with wailing backing vocals that reflects on Joey's hardships with accepting himself. Normally making a positive critique on something being absent isn't worth the while, but with the trend on incorporating the token relationship/romantic/girl problem track, that often horribly underperforms (case in point, Bishop Nehru's 'Mean The Most'), it's a blessing Joey's strayed away from mentioning his life in regards to women. 

The New York-based emcee might fall in line with a long list of rappers to replicate the era before him, in a city rife with them, but his dominance over nearly all, especially at such a young age, put Joey in a good position to back any boisterous claims up. B4.DA.$$ is an impressive debut, not nearly to the level his insurmountable objective of Illmatic achieved, but regardless of its lasting legacy, Joey's here to stay, and at a time when the debut album makes or breaks these young mixtape rappers, like Bishop Nehru's, it's reassuring to know he can transition himself to the big stage of compiling a coherent, well thought-out album that dominates in terms of beats and flows. There's a lingering internal dilemma of Badass though, one that, if he discovers could be sensationalized in a future release, that being his inability to side with either peace or violence, a side effect of his 90's acceptance of street vs. soul. Mick Jenkins is currently thriving under the same conflict. Joey seems all for progressing past senseless violence in the streets, but as he states on 'Save The Children,' "peace means harmony, not war and armory, but fuck that, cock your gun back" he's not ready to make that pivotal distinction. As of right now though, it's food for thought. B4.DA.$$ takes two sides of that story to make the whole of Joey Badass, New York's new pioneering young head. 

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