The mixtapes “1999” and “Summer Knights” established Joey Bada$$ as a votary of the ’93-’94 golden age of hip-hop, an era he wasn’t even alive for. With “B4.DA.$$,” his first full-length album, Joey pours syllabic rivers over boom-bap productions and crafts a head-bopping argument against the digital distance in today’s synthesizers. Joey joins the thriving pantheon of rappers—Kendrick, Chance the Rapper, Run the Jewels—who are re-politicizing hip-hop and mining for personal revelations and hard-hitting societal verities.
Due to the obvious influence of a bygone era of hip-hop, Joey has earned the label “dusty”—antiquated, atavistic. But, Joey embraces the diss and turns it into a self-actualizing sobriquet in “Big Dusty.” In the hook, Joey urges us to “Check my style, check, check, check it out.” Far from self-conscious of his style, Joey wants you to explore his flow although the eerie piano riff suggests you may not be ready for what you’ll find.
Joey is well-aware that his detractors are bumping his shit, because they’re “forever bitin’ his forbidden style.” Forbidden is appropriate, at least from a corporate standpoint, because Joey does not produce chart-toppers. Joey forgoes poppy choruses and light subject matter; his hooks seem like little more than intermissions for the listener to gather himself after a mind-bending verse.
Joey addresses the radio-unfriendly bent of his songs through his strong wariness toward money. In “Paper Trail$,” another song featuring a long, centripetal verse, Joey raps, “They say money is the root of all evil/ I say money is the route of all people.” Joey does not rap to get rich; he raps for catharsis and truth and as a civil rights activist giving voice to his friends mired in a broken system.
Repeatedly, Joey’s journalistic eye for corruption and distortion denounces white collars invested in his incarceration, police brutality, and a profit-driven education system.
Hardly a song goes by without Joey referencing his ascendant intellectualism. Joey paints himself as the brainy wunderkid with a “Christ Conscious” (track 10) and an all-seeing “Hazeus View” (track 5); he has surveyed the landscape and returns with a vital poetry. In the opening lines of the first track, “Save the Children,” Joey sums up why his message demands listening: “It’s all a hidden history of mysteries/I see vividly, hysteria…But I share wisdom with Sumerians.” Then his concrete-grown intellect bursts into aphorism as he raps “You choked out for really thinkin’ that this shit is a silly dream/ when actually reality ain’t what it really seem.” Joey displaces dorm-room philosophizing to grimy inner city streets where it takes on a life or death significance.
Much of the intellectualism of “B4.DA.$$” revolves around a perceptive brainiac trying to make sense of his dark surroundings. The dynamic takes on a man-on-the-moon vibe in “Hazeus View,” where Joey decries that his boundless consciousness “still feel[s] so trapped in the solar system.” “No. 99” is an anthem for the oppressed underclass, with lyrics “We comin’ for groups of guys in suits and ties/ Who choose to hide truth from the eye.” These are the proclamations of an subversive revolutionary getting out “how I used to feel on the metro home” when he “used the underground railroad like a runaway slave.”
However, Joey falls short in some respects: he lacks the authorial touch for building Illmatic-style narratives, his references can seem puerile (“Dragon Ball-Z”), and the repetition of certain tropes and conceits makes a few verses threadbare. But the record remains important and profound in moments when Joey looks back and realizes how far he’s come. Joey frames “Piece of Mind” as though he is playing the song to his friend in jail over the phone. At the end, Joey’s friend relates that he heard another one of his songs on the radio, and Joey, in a moment of unfiltered joy, says, “Oh you heard that shit!”