Joey Badass progresses his sound and gets political on “All-Amerikkkan Badass.”
When Joey Badass first showed up with 1999 at age 17, one thing was alarmingly clear: the kid could spit. He was dropping god-tier bars like “It can get you on your medical, fuck you up in the decimals/Or get you 2 to 3 for residue found in your retinue” and “Traded in my Nikes for a new mic/I guess it’s safe to say he sold soles for his new life,” immediately positioning him next to Earl Sweatshirt on the “teenagers whose pen games are not to be fucked with” list of the 2010s. That debut tape was committed to (what at the time seemed to be) a theme—rapping about being good at rapping over nostalgic instrumentals—but as time went on, it became clear that that was Joey’s whole M.O., not just fuel for one tape. He was the classic old soul, “born too late” and choosing endless homages to the past over stopping to smell the roses of the present, a shtick that couldn’t carry anything weightier than 1999, as his uneven debut album soon proved.
It shouldn’t come as much of a shock, considering that Badass’ entire career has spanned the late-teen, early-adult years in which most people “find themselves,” but since B4.DA.$$‘ arrival in 2015, he’s transformed into one of the more explicitly political rappers of his generation. Sure, he used to rap about the crack epidemic and the danger of high fructose corn syrup (on B4.DA.$$‘ not-as-political-as-the-title-suggests “Save The Children”), but between attending Black Lives Matter protests and releasing a song called “Land Of The Free” on Martin Luther King Day, Badass made it clear that current events were increasingly becoming as important to him as Nas interpolations and MF DOOM beats had been since day one. Lo and behold, his sophomore album, All-Amerikkkan Badass, is primarily informed by socio-political thought.
The opening bars of “Good Morning Amerikkka” give us a pretty good idea of Badass’ approach to rapping about the issues. His words are somewhere between surface-level, Schoolhouse Rock-style investigation into American ideals (“Now, what’s freedom to you?/Let’s talk about it, take a minute, think it through/I’m all about it but the concept seems new”), BLM-fueled critiques of policing and the racist prison industrial complex (“The coppers still shoot us down on Channel 5 news/Lock us up for anythin’ we do to pay dues”), and afrocentrist conspiracy theorist rhetoric (“Some of us woke while some stay snoozed/Zombies walkin’ around trippin’ over issues”). He leans into each one of these focuses at various points throughout the album– dropping actual facts like, “Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” sly observations like, “Who you think investin’ in penitentiaries though/Same owners as them labels, same owners of your cable,” and meaningless signifiers of higher consciousness like, “Turn my brain up a wavelength”– giving us a pretty vivid portrait of his beliefs. As an expository essay on Joey Badass’ political views, AABA passes with flying colors, but as a a thoughtful, artistic critique of 2017 America, it’s a little too obvious and shallow in its execution to leave a lasting impression. Where AABA more noticeably improves on Badass’ past work is in its musical flexibility. No longer is Joey rapping almost exclusively about his lyrical prowess (although a few bars like “Double entendre monster” still sneak in here and there), and no longer is he rapping almost exclusively on beats that you could imagine Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad producing in 1996. Early highlights “Temptation” and “Land Of The Free” achieve upbeat danciness much less awkwardly than the Kiesza-assisted B4.DA.$$ cut “Teach Me,” the album’s second half finds Badass mining his Jamaican heritage to great effect, and “Devastated” and “Y U Don’t Love Me?” even have trap hi-hats! He still fills his songs with ’90s callbacks—”Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane,” “Dead presidents,” and a methodical pause between the words “And it’s all… good” all make appearances—but it seems like he’s gradually embracing the fact that he was born in 1995, not 1975. Pro Era comrades Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight are still repping that reductive, old school mindset on “Ring The Alarm” (“It ain’t even bout the bars, they bumping whatever slaps now/all I hear is ad-lib rappers on my SoundCloud”), but that just comes off as comical after Joey himself utters the dreaded “Skrt skrt” on “Devastated.” Joey’s no longer a stick in the mud, as evidenced by his love for Lil Uzi Vert‘s “Xo Tour Llif3” and work with Metro Boomin, and that decreased bitterness towards the era in which he’s made his name makes him a much more enjoyable presence on the mic.
The main problem with AABA is that its political message basically boils down to, “Be angry and don’t trust the powers that be,” and that it asks, “Let’s formulate a plan” without offering any answers. However, this isn’t as big of a deal when the artist in question is 22 years old. If the message of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was comparably vague, it would be a travesty, but for a young rapper just dipping his toes into the political arena, it’s fine. If AABA gets even a small fraction of Pro Era’s young fans paying attention, it’s done it’s job. I’m just hoping that in the future, Badass realizes that political albums are usually dulled when they attempt to contain the entirety of their creators’ worldviews, and decides to hone in on more vivid specifics.
AABA is the most explicitly political rap album I’ve heard in a year that seems to demand them, so that’s certainly worth something. Joey’s first attempt at devoting an album to conversations about race and government is admirable, but it doesn’t have To Pimp A Butterfly‘s artful approach, Black Messiah‘s pulse, Nobody’s Smiling‘s hyperlocal mastery, or even the final three tracks of Still Brazy‘s visceral rage. Instead, it’s an album composed of good music and basic politics, more akin to Vic Mensa’s There’s Alot Going On or Ty Dolla $ign‘s Campaign.