It’s almost unfathomable that Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ is only 18 years old. He leads the multi-faceted Pro Era crew, tours across the globe, and his debut mixtape, last year’s 1999, was a slice of ’90s era hip-hop heyday some rappers couldn’t replicate in five mixtapes. With just his second official mixtape, Summer Knights, Bada$$ continues his maturation at a profound rate, delivering one damn fine effort that’ll be bumped this season and beyond.
What makes the tape such a rousing success is that Bada$$ has established a two-pronged lyrical approach that’s deadly efficient.
The first wave is his sense of immaturity (the good, life-affirming variety) and youthful exuberance. Bada$$ doesn’t allude to cartoons or crack dick jokes for the fun of it; he lulls you in by focusing on how young he truly he is. For instance, “Alowha” has the “young scorcher trying to evolve like Charmeleon,” which is so giggleworthy you can’t help but feel like, “Aw shucks, he was probably into Pokémon, like, last year.”
But in a way, some of the more “immature” moments are a profound link back to the retro East Coast rap he loves so much. In “Right On Time”, Bada$$ sings the praises of his lady love, alternating between sweetness (“Me and you until the end of time/ ’til we no longer existential”) and obscenity (“I bury that kitty alive/ although I’m kidding, but I really be in it”), each with a coy beatitude. It’s a hardened version of an LL Cool J classic, adding a new sheen to his retro aesthetic and imbuing his jokier side earnestly.
The games don’t last long, as “My Youth” finds Bada$$ reflecting back on his sudden rise with a sense of gravitas that’s rare at 36, let alone 18. Bada$$ balances faith with his own self-confidence: “This one time, I said lord would you help?/ some short time after, see my music on the shelf/ and of course, I gotta thank myself.” And with that, he learns a valuable lesson about the real value of gold chains and sports cars (“My wealth is in my happiness and mine/ and not my pocket health in its ashes”).
It’s odd to hear someone so young wrought with nostalgic recollection, but “Reign” further proves Bada$$ is a wealth of introspective gold wrapped in shimmery wordplay. He references Nas’ “Rewind” to dispel fame’s appeal (“Wait reverse in the speech/ cause it ain’t always sunny on the sunny side”) while recognizing what truly matters (“Upgrade to the grade A list, but all they do is degrade us/ and it ain’t too hard to be famous, whats hard is sustaining/ remaining the same when stuff changing”). It all seems simple enough, but this is rare wisdom in a genre where bad decisions and deficient perspective are routinely career killers.
The lyrical high-point, though, is “Death of YOLO”. Bada$$ has crafted a parable concerning what it would’ve been like if he’d suffered an accident similar to the one that killed budding rapper Ervin McKinness, but had lived. It’s heavy stuff from a kid who should consider himself immortal, but it shows a real sense of humility to understand that life can end in a moment and that we should be thankful for the little miracles. Later in the song, as he talks about getting with girls and flexxin’, his theoretical brush with death informs his debauchery, going nuts on drugs and sex. It adds layers of conflict and emotion, all but making YOLO worthy of intellectual discussion (a concept I’d never thought I’d have to write).
While the lyrics are the most important and revealing insight into Bada$$’ continued growth and maturity, his choice of producers and beats is equally telling. Kirk Knight, who handled chunks of 1999 and Pro Era’s group tape, made “Right on Time” into an extra-romantic, extra-mainstream-leaning blend of tickled ivory and female vocal samples. There’s a kind of slam poetry tinge to Bada$$’ delivery, adding to the evocative nature. Similarly, Knight dresses up “Alowha” and its barrage of banging drums with bits of tweaked strings. As a result, Bada$$ tackles the dichotomous groove with one of his most forceful and raw deliveries to date. The two remain on the same page, the growth and experimentation unequivocally shared.
Later, the DOOM-helmed “Amethyst Rockstar” is a massive curveball of spacey synths and ambiance, a more complex, unexpected choice. Rather than smashing into it head-on, Bada$$ relents slightly, matching the ethereal nature with an especially loopy and manic flow. The DJ Premier-produced “Unorthodox” is tricky: while its drum machine rattle and sweeping string sample are more of the retro sound Bada$$ loves, there’s something especially pure about it, as if it’s not nostalgia but actually ripped right from BK back in ’93. Yet again, Bada$$ stays true to his aim, sounding especially tight and focused. That even-keeled approach stands tall on this mixtape, validation of the years of wisdom and brilliant intent under his youthful exterior.
Essential Tracks: “Right on Time”, “Death of YOLO”, and “Unorthodox”