Words by Andrew Ricketts @DrewBreez
On a frigid Thursday night at NYC’s Webster Hall nightclub, Joey Bada$$ premiered the number one rap album in the country, his debut B4DA$$ (Before Da Money). Outside the venue, passersby kept asking what the swaying line around 11th street was.
“Who’s this show for?” a Preppy Columbia-windbreaker wearing dude shouted out to the dread-head flat tops and their dates.
“It’s for Johnny Badass. The Johnny Badass Show,” and that incorrect reply marked the spot.
There is no definitive canon of hip-hop music. It grows and spreads in every direction, from syrupy Auto-tuned trap crooning to glitch-hop over deep bass and house grooves. But lovers of the genre coddle their standards as much as anyone else, with a preference for the familiar three-verse tale over the tap and kick of a break.
Except Joey Bada$$ isn’t creating a shtick, or repeating that rhyming tradition over the 2 and the 4 as an homage. What’s clear as the spotlight brightens on his tremendous presence and trademark rasp is that he lives to be that kind of rap music. Frankly, Joey represents these tropes more than he stands out as his own artist, and that’s ok right now. He is the imagined Top Five Rapper, a mix of Brooklyn bark, early East Coast finesse, jazz loops, blunt wraps, and the boyish teenaged Nas and Prodigy types who were peaking in the time he’s recalling. At 20, he’s created and envisioned so much success that he can name a debut album “before the money” with no cheeky irreverence implied. His sold-out show at one of New York’s hot spots asserts his bona fides as headlining draw, and whether anyone can pick him out of a line-up is less important. That’s not to mention the surprising and impressive number of young women in thralls for a Joey show. Bedecked in waist-tied flannel shirts, leggings, nose gauges and cloudy curls, his women supporters might’ve been byproduct of the Malia Obama effect, their curiosity culled from a sneaky social media picture of the First Daughter in her Pro Era gear. (The rapper denies leaking the snapshot intentionally, and his charm may excuse a white lie in this case.) Or they might just be a large portion of his fan base, seeking their musical thrill in a wordy ruffian.
Whatever the case, and wherever he may fit on the Spotify shuffle Joey puts on an energetic, mic-strangling display.
He led with “Badman” off the new project, a clue that the Caribbean infusion of this song is a borrowed ’90s item that he can use deftly. “Dusty”and “Paper Trail$” were eschewed for CJ Fly’s freestyle interlude and a Bada$$ a cappella. This quick catalog jump signifies the difference between what Joey is and what he may need to become in order to keep in line with the artist legacy he’s modeling.
Joey gives familiarity in spades, and that will endear him to many traditionalists. But the pain of his homey Capital Steez’s death in 2012, the exhaustion of touring, the rapid rise from hometown favorite to worldwide hero misses something in the telling. Although he may not be wired for a “hit song” based on today’s electronic dance wave, unable to slow his back-to-the-future joyride just for the sake of modernity, Joey still meanders through topics from accosting your girl to cosmic visions in two bars. His songs’ only cohesive element is that ’90s “feel,” and it seems, based on the growing hype, the people want more of his experience. No matter how golden the filter he applies.
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