Vintage 90s beats and modern electronic rhythms coalesce on Joey Bada$$'s debut

Has there been an alternative hip hop album more anticipated in the last few years?  

Since rising to fame in 2012 on a digital platform of nostalgia after dropping his acclaimed mixtape 1999 as a 16 year old, Brooklynite Joey Bada$$ has been flown around the globe to bring the rugged sounds of 1990s east coast New York to the masses. Though he has since released a slew of mixtapes to mixed reception, they’ve always been overshadowed by the impending release of his all-important first album B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “before the money”), finally released this week after what to many seemed like an eternity.

Extraordinarily in today’s file sharing culture, details for Bada$$’s first album have been kept tightly under wraps for the most part, which only adds to the public’s already considerable expectations. Underground rappers today often find themselves suddenly thrust into the volatile hip hop public sphere through the release of a successful mixtape, but all too often fail to live up to the hype. Like the title of fellow NYC alternative rappers De La Soul’s 1996 album, for Bada$$ and his long-awaited debut, the “stakes is high”.

Immediately, listeners will be able to hear B4.DA.$$’s general boom-bap aura, most palpable in its vintage production values, offering a refreshing contrast to many of today’s programmed electronic rhythms. Those crying out for hip hop to return to its “golden age” sound will find this particularly gratifying, though such is the quality with which it is mostly executed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone with a penchant for the genre will be disappointed.

While Bada$$ may not have directly lived through the black nationalism, crime and political digression which informed much of the 90s aesthetic, it is clear he is heavily influenced by its sound, rapping over old Beatnuts, Dilla, and Lord Finesse cuts on previous releases, homages for which he has been both praised and disparaged. B4.DA.$$ features almost all original production from the likes of his Pro Era collective affiliates Statik Selektah, Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers, as well as the legendary DJ Premier, corroborating that the maturing emcee is starting to carve out his own niche.“Hazeus View” is equal parts rugged and smooth, enveloping the listener with the juxtaposition of a gentle piano loop and fierce breakbeat, while the stunning orchestral layers of “Save the Children” provide a striking foundation for Bada$$ rapper to preach his gospel.

Released on Bada$$’s 20th birthday, B4.DA.$$ represents a lyrical maturity which does more than merely coincide with the ending of his teenage years.  Now an adult, he’s more settled and focused than on previous releases, dealing with some more weighty issues such as police brutality (“Like Me”), government corruption (“Piece of Mind”) and the suicide of close friend and fellow Pro Era member Capital Steez (various).

Though while much of the album is permeated with the intuitive musings of a maturing artist, it is “On & On” in particular that best showcases his newly discovered sense of expression. Bada$$ is well aware of the hype surrounding this release, and to his credit, it doesn’t seem to unsettle him. “Things get severe for everybody, everywhere/this is my moment of truth, right here’” he reflects atop a gentle guitar and horn sample, displaying moments of astute poignancy that evoke the late Guru in more ways than one.

While the album showcases much of the considerable growth Bada$$ has made as an emcee in the last few years, much of his youthful arrogance is also present. His conversant but original flows that evoke the fury of Onyx, arrogance of Big L and raspiness of Busta Rhymes are particularly evident on “Paper Trail$”, “Christ Conscious” and “Big Dusty”, showcasing much of the pride, emotion and talent that informs his persona as a performer.

But the burgeoning rapper’s growing development also means that age can now seldom be used as an excuse for laziness, drawbacks or weaknesses. B4.DA.$$ noticeably lacks the momentum and power of the albums made by his heroes, while its overall track-to-track inconsistencies and reprise of typical gangsta troupes provide other disappointing moments of limitation. Bluntly put, the album is nothing we haven’t heard before.

But does that make it any less enjoyable? Not at all. The lyrics are hot and the beats are hotter, providing a much-needed antidote to help us forget about the Chris Browns and Flo Ridas of the world. In terms of game-changing debuts it may not be an Illmatic, Ready to Die or Enter the Wu-Tang, but it does provide a fine throwback (at least aesthetically) to times where hip hop was a bit more honest.

Fresh off assault charges at Falls Festival over the new year, Bada$$ will be hoping his first full length assault on today’s rap game will have a more positive ending. Only time will tell if the album was truly worth the considerable wait, but the evolution displayed on B4.DA.$$ alone provides enough evidence to suggest Bada$$’s journey will be one to keep a close eye on in the future.

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