By Aidan Connelly
At the time of this album’s release, Brooklyn rapper Joey Badass is already somewhat of a figurehead in modern hip-hop. He made his name in 2012 with his 1999 mixtape, and since then he and his Pro Era crew have established themselves as the primary new-school old-schoolers, with their twenty five some odd members and a wid- reaching fanbase that spreads from the streets of Brooklyn all the way to, well, the White House.
This being his first official album, Joey Badass, born Jo-Vaughn Scott, uses B4.Da.$$ as a chance to establish himself not as a prime lyricist–he set that one straight years ago–but rather as a fully realized adult, with all of the understandings and complexities that arise from the experience of growing up. His rise with Pro Era has arguably taken a lot of refuge in the sound of youthful excitement–the kind that comes along with being a teenager who gets 600,000 DatPiff downloads before his eighteenth birthday.
But though he still represents his crew throughout his debut, make no mistake–B4.Da.$$ is very a much a project of its namesake rapper. Throughout the album’s fifteen tracks, only three feature guest verses, and of those, only one from a fellow Pro Era member. The fact that the two bonus tracks that didn’t make the album have features only accentuates the deliberation behind a move like that. He’s taking some breathing room to focus on his own vision, and luckily for us, Scott has a pretty strong hold on it.
For the majority of the 53 minutes that make up B4.Da.$$, what we’re given are the one and only Joey raspy-voiced, hard-hitting, intricately flowing Badass. Highlights are singles like “Christ Conscious,” with its hyper-confident lyrical delivery, and the counter C.R.E.A.M sentiment of “Paper Trail$.” However, it’s the latter track that establishes a real raison d’etre throughout B4.DA.$$–the idea holding on to the pre-fame determination and artistic drive well after success has reaped its rewards. It’s why the album’s title can be read as a double entendre, and coincidentally also why it’s so fun to listen to.
Behind the Scott’s lyrical acrobatics are the typical Pro Era contributors; there are appearances from Kirk Knight, Chuck Strangers and Statik Selektah, as well as a Roots/J Dilla fusion beat for the track “Like Me.” The most notable new member on production is the legendary DJ Premier, who previously lended beats for many other notable Brooklyn emcees like, well, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas. The instrumentals tend to work alongside Scott’s aesthetic, which means a lot of piano loops over dry drums and airy vocals loops. It works as an homage to the past legends and sounds good behind Scott’s vocals, but details like the head-bashing crash cymbal drumbeat on “No. 99″ or the breakbeat pace on “Escape 120” show that the occasional switch-up isn’t always a bad thing.
If there’s any catch to listening to an hour’s worth of Joey Badass, it’s that individual pieces of the album come across as less defined. Lyrically and sonically, a handful of tracks on B4.Da.$$ blend together, though not nearly as much as on previous mixtapes. Still, it’s an issue he’s yet to fully eradicate. Thankfully for us, his age is a reminder that he’s still got plenty of room to grow.
Scott is a young rapper, not unlike an Earl Sweatshirt or a Chance the Rapper, but his spirit is on a whole other plane from the other emcees his age. His ethos rests alongside the dirty, lyrical New York heavyweights who were busy making their big statements around the time he was born. It’s a quality that’s defined Scott throughout his career, and it’s as much what limits him as it is what gives him his strength. It’s a formula that’s give and take, though with a much bigger emphasis on the former.