One can’t be a lyrical stick up kid forever. At 22, Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ is already older than those who conceived The Low End Theory, The Infamous, and ATLiens. Like those hallowed sophomore efforts, Bada$$’s second entry, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, is saddled with the hype surrounding an artist who came of age in the public eye, and for whom the goodwill he garnered for simply being precocious has run its course.
The predicament Bada$$ now faces is more complicated than the simple yet enduring cliché of “Will He or Won’t He Fall Victim to the Sophomore Slump?”; for an artist who is both so blatantly talented and conceptually inoffensive, Bada$$ is oddly polarizing. The rapper first came to attention at the age of seventeen, extolled for both his lyrical proficiency and his dedication to mid-Nineties hip-hop. Some deemed his positioning as a young genius with an old soul too precisely calibrated, his devotion to golden-era sensibilities a way to court cheap buzz for values his music ostensibly espoused but didn’t actually supply. Where some saw a defender of the flag, others saw a high schooler dabbling in the milieu of New York Undercover and its made-for-TV hip-hop soundtrack. And the teen-prodigy narrative seemed calculated to gain Joey brownie points afforded to few of his pioneering heroes.
All of which undersells the ambitions of a kid who, by any standard, could rap his badass off. Joey’s 2015 full-length debut, B4.DA.$$, even while relying heavily on performative acrobatics, was so serious in its intent and execution it was a little disorienting. Where his earlier mixtapes offered at least a modicum of youthful nonchalance, a weight hung over B4.DA.$$ like a storm cloud. While his hypertechnical methods bore little immediate resemblance to some of his Brooklyn predecessors, the resultant aesthetic was reminiscent of the Boot Camp Clik: blunted, noir-ish landscapes injected with Jamaican patois, hazily recognizable as Kings County but extraterrestrial in effect, the tour guide mourning lost comrades while still reveling in the anarchy of his broken world.
With little left to prove as a technician, on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ Joey aims to assert his worth as a multidimensional performer, musician, writer, and cultural commentator. If B4.DA.$$ was his ticket to the big leagues, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ makes the case for his franchise tag.
All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is split into two acts: the first a breezily engineered suite of politically charged manifestos, the second a succession of dark, crowd-pleasing collaborations. The opening half, with production handled by DJ Khalil, 1-900, Kirk Knight, and Powers Pleasant, sports an upbeat brightness that casts a taut optimism over Bada$$’s unease. Like that of his earlier work, the lush instrumentation — Rhodes keys, clap drums, muted horns — creates a pensive landscape that sounds like April in New York City. The songs are outfitted with infectious hooks and bridges, showcasing Joey’s immense growth as a songwriter. Where a younger Bada$$ might have packed as many syllables as possible into each bar, here he shrewdly perceives that his words have greater impact when afforded room to breathe with the melodies.
“For My People” is a legitimate anthem landing somewhere between 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” and Nas’s “Hero,” the lead single off the rapper’s untitled 2008 album with similarly grandiose yet vague political ambitions. “Everything ain’t what it seem/Wishin’ all these dirty cops would come clean/Still swerving on these city blocks for one thing/My man just copped a thirty shot, protect the team, know what I mean?” he raps on the freshly percolating track, positing himself as the hopeful protector of our doomed Metropolis. The cut is so well-produced and well-performed that it’s an immediate home run. The rallying cry “Temptation” and motivational “Devastated” follow suit, with Joey voicing well-meaning consciousness via a righteous anger that doesn’t overwhelm.
A record that sounds this good hardly needs subject matter so weighty, but as a young man with a mouthpiece in Trump’s America, Joey Bada$$ is no longer content to be just an entertainer. As hard as it is to criticize an artist from one of society’s most disenfranchised sectors voicing his discontent, Joey’s political discourses amount to the record’s most glaring, and maybe its only, shortcoming. His accounts of feeling belittled, shortchanged, pressured, and misunderstood are valid to the point of being bulletproof, but they’re rarely profound. Bada$$ is a competent writer of bars and verses, but his words lack the specificity to form real narratives or arguments.
“Land of the Free” is commendable in its intent, a song for black children in Trump’s America, but the insights here are pablum without a call to action: “Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier/Obama just wasn’t enough, I just need some more closure/And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over/Let’s face facts, ’cause we know what’s the real motives.”
To criticize the current president on a rap record in 2017 — “Fuck Donald Trump,” he spits on “Rockabye Baby” — is brave, but Bada$$ is susceptible to hollow signifying in place of actual criticism. If, as he suggests, Trump’s America is indistinguishable from Reagan’s and both Bushes’, spelling America “AmeriKKKa” and noting that the star-spangled banner bears the same colors as the Crips and Bloods isn’t any more trenchant a commentary than when Ice Cube and Spice 1 did it 25 years ago. A suspicious listener might reasonably ask why one should care what the “Curry Chicken” rapper thinks about government; unfortunately, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ doesn’t make much of a case.
That’s a shame, because All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is so earnest and otherwise outstanding a hip-hop album that it hardly warrants such a stretch. Its twelve tracks are impeccably sequenced without a dull moment, and when Bada$$ adopts a ragga patois, it doesn’t reek of Drake’s cynical appropriation — because Joey is actually, you know, a Caribbean American. “Rockabye Baby,” which introduces the album’s second half, shatters the opening tracks’ pleasant languor for good; the song sounds like a Schoolboy Q trunk rattler even before the TDE star clocks in on the second verse. The gleefully dystopian posse cut “Ring the Alarm” also lands among the record’s most unanimously successful tracks. Ironically, Joey’s writing is better when he’s not aiming for sociopolitical relevance, and the pivot to more straightforward rapping doesn’t sacrifice the musicality of the first act.
“Super Predator” — featuring Styles P, still one of the best bar-for-bar guest rappers alive — achieves poignance contrasting the veteran’s “filthy America” with the high risks and heavy burdens Joey experiences a generation later. Bada$$ seamlessly matches the D-Block rapper’s template, their dispatches suggesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Babylon,” a duet with the reggae artist Chronixx, is triumphant in its less on-the-nose commentary. Even the contemptible J. Cole redeems himself on the brilliant Statik Selektah production “Legendary,” a fittingly contemplative deep cut.
The album’s apocalyptic closer, “AmeriKKKan Idol,” is a six-minute epic and, like the most emphatic material here, something of a mixed bag. Bada$$ swings for the fences in an attempt to take an entire culture to task, and while most of the track works — referencing police shootings and fake-news propaganda — it ends with a whimper, an ambiguous call to rebel but also to work together.
To discredit the conceit and content of an album as fantastic sounding as All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ seems beside the point, but the frustrating dissonance lies in the fact that, as great as it is, the record Bada$$ sought to make is even better than the one he ended up with. Joey’s ambition is to be applauded; he’s an intellectual artist who, in the face of surmounting evil, put forth a dazzling record that unequivocally takes a stand.
But ultimately, it’s still something of a low-stakes affair. Joey Bada$$’s listeners span demographics — from nostalgic older heads to technique-obsessed purists to younger fans who see him as an alternative to his self-obsessed contemporaries — but I still can’t imagine many Republicans buying his records. For now, he offers the wisdom of a 22-year-old hip-hop obsessive. With a little more seasoning, it’s entirely conceivable he’ll reach the level of articulate acumen he’s grasping for.
And even if he doesn’t, that’s fine. He’s a lightning-in-a-bottle talent, and All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is one of the most eminently listenable rap albums you’ll encounter this year, which is more than enough. We’ve already got a Kendrick, but we don’t necessarily have another Joey.