It’s hard to believe that Joey Bada$$ is only 22. The internet seems to age culture in dog years, so it feels like much longer than the half-decade it’s been since the skinny kid from Flatbush entered the national consciousness with the video for “Survival Tactics”. The song — whose instrumental and title come from a late ’90s Styles of Beyond track inspired by their early ’90s predecessors — is characteristic of Joey’s early work.
As a teen, he displayed a prodigious talent for lyrics and youthful charisma, but often veered into caricature of his golden-era inspirations instead of following their lead to arrive somewhere innovative. Subsequent mixtapes and his debut album, B4.DA.$$, showed incremental growth, but overall his output was derivative, though eminently listenable.
His sophomore album, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, however, is a step towards a new direction for the young artist. The 12-song project is the Brooklyn native’s most well-rounded release to date. Joey Bada$$ is no longer just a kid inspired by early ’90s hip-hop trying to outrap a never-ending army of whack MCs. Now he’s a self-assured adult who is using his art to examine the world around him.
The album could actually almost be split into two separate EPs, with the first half featuring more polished production, sing-songy hooks, and instrumentation than Joey’s core fan base may be used to. He also sticks closer to the political theme that carries throughout the album in the first six songs. “Temptation”, for example, is bookended by the tearful pleas of 9-year-old Zianna Oliphant, from her impassioned 2016 remarks to the Charlotte, NC, City Council following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and subsequent protests. Joey describes the feeling of helplessness and being tempted to step out of character with every new indignity that weighs down his already heavy heart. On “Land of the Free”, featuring warm synths and the familiar drums from Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit”, Joey preaches the importance of self-determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. And while “Y U Don’t Love Me?” feels a bit too stylistically close to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” for comfort, its direct appeal to America — personified as a cold-hearted would-be romantic partner — is novel enough to provide some much-needed distance from K-Dot’s young classic.
The second half of the album will be more familiar to Joey’s longtime fans. The momentum builds towards the album’s powerful closer with stripped-down production, raw lyricism, and some notable guest appearances by ScHoolboy Q (“Rockabye Baby”), Styles P (“Super Predator”), and J. Cole on the Statik Selektah-produced “Legendary”. Fellow Pro Era members Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight show up for “Ring the Alarm”, which also includes a scene-stealing cameo by Meechy Darko of Flatbush Zombies. The aforementioned “Super Predator” finds Jozi reaching a new level of confidence with lines like “Yes, I’m a veteran/ You’s just a comer up/ I can teach you a lesson/ On how to get your hunger up.” The student becomes the teacher.
The album ends with one of the best songs of Joey Bada$$’s brief career, “Amerikkkan Idol”. The six-minute stream of consciousness details the thought process of a young man growing increasingly angry as he learns more about the world he inhabits. He empathizes with his community while trying to come up with ways to improve it. He mourns the losses of those who died at the hands of the police, as well as those who died at the hands of other black men. He emphasizes the importance of solutions over hashtags. The track summarizes the substance of All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ perfectly.
He hasn’t figured out all of the answers as an artist or as a concerned citizen yet, but he is rebelling against what he knows is wrong. Resistance, be it against structural inequities in society or just against stagnation in one’s art, is sometimes enough. At the very least, it’s a start.
Essential Tracks: “Land of the Free”, “Rockabye Baby” feat. ScHoolboy Q, and “Amerikkkan Idol”