Joey Bada$$ presents engaging, critical view of America

Joey Bada$$’s newest release, “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$,” explores a critical yet wholly engaging and optimistic view of current American social issues through catchy beats. / Courtesy of kmeron via Flickr

Don’t sleep on this album! I know a new Kendrick Lamar album came out—and I know it’s fantastic—but “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” is one of the most competent hip-hop albums to be released since Danny Brown’s “Atrocity Exhibition.” And while I don’t think “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” is as boundary-pushing as the other albums, I do think that it’s a solid album front-to-back.

Joey Badass is a Brooklyn rapper who, until recently, was known for his boom-bap revivalist-style hip hop. I have pretty fond memories of listening to his “1999” mixtape when it came out a while ago, and the style he was going for on that mixtape was improved upon with his commercial debut “B4.DA.$$.”

These projects had Joey Badass tackling beats from J Dilla, MF DOOM and production from his own collective Pro Era, and really knocking it out of the park. The beats were chill, and the verses were dense. What we got from this combination was a love letter to boom-bap hip-hop and an enjoyable one at that.

That’s why I got nervous and excited when I heard that Joey was going to be moving away from this boom-bap style. Thankfully, I think this switch-up in styles wasn’t only successful but felt like the natural form of progression for Joey.

So what makes this album great? Well let’s start with the cover and title. “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” features Joey Badass with reclining half of his body out of a run-down car, American flag sticking off the windshield. Joey’s expression is fascinating, and the censored middle fingers are great.

I’m dumbfounded to find any sort of statement from this picture, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just drip energy. It’s like Joey telling us “fuck what you heard, you’re getting what I’m selling.”

And then there’s the title: “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$.” You can tell what the subject of this album is going to be. You know it’s going to be political and social, and you also know it’s about a badass. This mix of individual braggadocious bravado with a social edge is a good way to describe this album.

As I see it, the album as a whole is split into two halves, with the song “DEVASTATED” acting as its centerpiece. The first half is very laid back and wordy, including great tracks like “LAND OF THE FREE” and “FOR MY PEOPLE.” I love how synth-heavy these tracks are, and how well Joey sings over them. They are without a doubt catchy, despite not being the brightest songs.

This first half is probably my favorite part of this album, and not because the second half drops the ball either. And then we get to the track “DEVASTATED,” which I was conflicted about. It seemed to reside in this no-man’s-land of hype. To use another Kendrick comparison, this song felt like it was trying to be a watered down version of “Alright.” But the more I listened to this track, the more it’s grown on me, and the more what originally looked like weaknesses have become my favorite aspects of this song.

The verses might be a little more subdued and soft, but the hook is an earworm and never fails to explode in energy that really comes out of nowhere. And it works so well with the beat: The cool, shimmering ambient noise that goes throughout the track works greatly with Joey’s slightly auto-tuned vocals and ricocheting drum.

And then we get the second half of the album, whose songs are a little bit more high-energy. But more importantly, Joey is able to maintain the quality of the first half of the album. Some of my favorites are “ROCKABYE BABY” and the posse-track “RING THE ALARM.”

There’s so much going on in the beat in “ROCKABYE BABY” that the instrumental itself is worth the listen, but then Joey Badass and Schoolboy Q come in and push this track to the next level. Joey’s play on “As-Salaam-Alaikum” at the beginning of his verse is so simple and borderline playful that it brings an incredible amount of hype to an already energetic track, which the album keeps up until the end.

I think another strength of this album that pushes it well above other hip-hop releases this year is how complete it feels. Coming off of reviewing Drake’s “More Life,” which was composed mostly of filler, “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” sounds heavenly with its conciseness. Everything on this album is there for a reason, and every track—even the more energetic hype tracks—appeals to the theme of an “Amerikkkan” identity developed over the course of the album.

No, it’s not a concept album, but Joey explores the complex nature of what it means to be an American, especially for people of color. Not only does this commentary have depth, many of his one-liners, such as “still spell amerikkka with the triple k,” constitute a passionate and engaging entry into difficult and nuanced topics.

That’s why you get so many songs on this album that, despite their relaxing vibe, are actually pretty somber. Songs like “Y U DON’T LIKE ME (MISS AMERIKKKA)” and “LAND OF THE FREE” paint a picture of the world for what it is, and if you were to take it on lyrics alone, it would be a pretty heavy song. These tracks, however, still maintain a sense of optimism.

Even the cover design for the album projects a bright tone, and the music mirrors this attitude. Despite how easy it would have been to make this album feel hopeless and dreary, Joey Badass instead opts for a hopeful—though necessarily critical— look at the world around us. It’s a testament to Joey Badass as an artist that he can tie this feeling of hope and brightness into an album that’s all about the messed-up world we live in.



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