When Joey Bada$$ released his 2012 mixtape “1999,” a reference to what he called hip-hop’s “golden age,” there were inevitable comparisons to rappers from that era, both good and bad. For every outlet that praised his “Nas-in-’94 raps,” there was someone who used that nostalgia to brush him off as derivative.
That’s part of what makes listening to the rapper’s first official full-length, “B4.DA.$$,” so satisfying: it paints a portrait of an evolving artist, constantly improving through hard work, a central theme on the album.
“My mission with this project is to basically put everybody in the same mind-state, which is the ‘before the money’ mind-state,” he told Bloomberg last month. “It’s that moment in your life when you realize, you know, you have this set goal, you have something that you really want to do, and before you actually obtain it, it’s that work that you put to getting it.”
But while the album does spend time talking about what life was like “before the money,” it does that from the perspective of someone who’s already made it. Throughout 17 tracks (15 with two bonus) the Flatbush-raised Joey Bada$$ brags, confesses his insecurities, shouts-out friends who are incarcerated or have passed (R.I.P. Capital Steez) and generally describes what it’s like to work hard, succeed at something and then deal with the consequences of that success.
That theme is no more evident than on the DJ Premier-produced “Paper Trail$,” an album standout in the vein of Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” (and its many imitators.) While giving a nod to Wu Tang, lamenting “cash ruined everything around me,” he acknowledges right off that bat that it’s a lot more complicated than that: “Before the money there was love, but before the money it was tough.” Sure, with more money comes more problems…but, you know: more money.
That kind of thoughtfulness is all over the record, and the record itself is a good a look at an artist figuring out his own emotions and life choices. On “No. 99,” an ostensible anti-authority song that’s actually more about the rapper just spitting bars from his id, Joey pauses in the middle of an anti-cop tirade: “Don’t trip, I’m just another black kid caught up in the mix, trying to make a dollar out of 47 cents.” He’s young and angry, but he’s also ready to admit he’s just trying to work out what those emotions mean.
“B4.DA.$$” definitely sounds like a first album in a lot of ways, and folks that like to criticize Joey Bada$$ for sounding too much like a ’90s rapper will still have plenty of fuel for that, with the aforementioned Biggie and Wu Tang references joining Big Pun, Tupac and Big L. But for all of that nostalgia it’s also a surprisingly mature and cohesive album.
Of course, some of those haters are more than happy to praise rappers like Troy Ave., himself an archetype of a New York style nobody cares about anymore. But even if it’s accurate to call Joey a “throwback,” it’s ultimately irrelevant: Good artists evolve, and Joey Bada$$ is evolving at his own pace.
“I ignore expectations that people have for me,” he told the Guardian. “I’m not going to do boom-bap shit for my whole career. That would be pointless. That would be no progression. No evolution. What good is an artist without growing?”