Album Review: Joey Bada$$ – B4.Da.$$

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The audience is chanting for the performer to take the stage, but this — Joey Bada$$ — isn’t supposed to be what they want. The Brooklyn teenager has been both praised and written off as a throwback, rapping over old beats by DOOM, J Dilla, and Lord Finesse. He’s conservative where young artists are expected to challenge tradition, but, over time, the newcomer with the unsightly name has turned out to be less of a nuisance and more of a serious prospect. Following two mixtapes, B4.Da.$$ is his proper debut, and its greatness seems imminent as soon as that room-filling applause swells during its opening seconds.

B4.Da.$$ will come out on Joey’s 20th birthday, which is just one tip that the album is more mature than anything he’s done before. Tellingly, Dyemond Lewis is the only member of Bada$$’s Pro Era crew to lay down a verse (“On & On”); clearly, Joey wanted to keep the spotlight on his own words, his own vision. His wordplay, comparable to his friend Ab-Soul’s, remains integral to his approach, but here he’s more personal and purposeful than he was on his mixtapes, rapping about rapping but also lamenting the realities of being young and black in America.

Structurally, the album is wide in scope: During one interlude, a radio host asks Joey about his Jamaican/Caribbean heritage, foreshadowing reggae-inspired songs like “Belly of the Beast” (featuring native Jamaican Chronixx). At its most detailed, B4.Da.$$ brings to mind the part in Kendrick Lamar’s XXL cover story where he writes that he spent his teens becoming a rapper but didn’t learn how to be a writer until later. By that metric, Joey, just 19 for now, is evolving even faster.

Producer Chuck Strangers talked about wanting to bring a more modern, party-ready sound to B4.Da.$$, but his contributions aren’t exactly DJ Mustard impressions; he just opted for double-time tempos and more melody. The rest of B4.Da.$$  with beats from DJ Premier (“Paper Trail$”) and Dilla/The Roots (“Like Me”) — balances old and new. While the drums and turntable scratches evoke any number of ’90s touchstones (but especially Dah Shinin’ and The Awakening), the piano, bass, and other instruments absolutely glow. Even “Big Dusty” and “Christ Conscious”, though toned down in certain ways, are just spacey and off enough to sound psychedelic. “This shit is like taking candy from the babies/ Under these rappers is just a bunch of Now & Laters,” Joey observes on “Big Dusty”. Vintage sound or no, he won’t be one of those fleeting MCs; he possesses such skill and drive that it’s doubtful he still needs his predecessors to show him where to go next.

Essential Tracks: “Big Dusty”, “Christ Conscious”