Few rappers have captured the classic East Coast sound of the 1990s with as much dexterity and appreciation for the style as Pro Era founder Joey Bada$$. Following the release of 1999, one of the most promising mixtape debuts in recent years (and the work of a 17-year-old, no less), Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, known by his MC moniker of Joey Bada$$, dropped his debut record, B4.DA.$$, on his 20th birthday in January of 2015. Mentioning Joey’s age is somewhat of a cliché at this point, but for a 19-year-old to have recorded an album that payed such an esteemed tribute to the classic, sample-based, boom bap sound of 90s New York hip hop so well, whilst also penning some compelling bars of personal strife and ambition, is truly astonishing. Indeed, the interest garnered by 1999 was undoubtedly just, with Joey living up to these hefty critical expectations on his full-length debut. This being said, B4.DA.$$ alluded to yet more promising endeavours for the young Brooklyn rapper, as it seemed unlikely he would continue pursuing a traditional East Coast jazz rap style forever and, indeed, on his latest record, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey takes an understandable and respectable step towards the political, as many of his inspirations have done before him. The first single from this new project, DEVASTATED which premiered nearly a year before the release of the full album, hinted towards a significant change of pace for Joey, marking an attempted mainstream crossover, moving away from his traditional, hardcore hip hop sound towards a more syrupy, smooth and soulful pop rap style with influences from trap that also saw the MC try his hand at singing. Then, earlier this year, on his 22nd birthday, the two-year anniversary of B4.DA.$$ and the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Joey dropped the track LAND OF THE FREE, which saw the artist rattle through myriad political topics in quick succession. Whilst this was not the first point in Joey Bada$$’s career in which he had touched on issues of a sociopolitical nature, this was certainly the first time he had covered them with such focus and conviction, and it suggested a similar approach for his new album as a whole. Indeed, as the title suggests, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is a broad analysis by Joey of the current state of American politics and, in particular, its relationship with black people. There were most definitely numerous recurring themes displayed across B4.DA.$$, but this new project could arguably be referred to as a concept album, given the extent to which the rapper focuses on politics. As for the success with which the artist actualises his ambitious vision on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, the album is surely a solid first attempt, particularly for an MC as young as Joey, and it exhibits an attitude towards constructing full-length albums that he is likely to pursue in more depth and detail into the future. This being said, whilst a promising effort overall, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ also demonstrates room for improvement in terms of how effectively Joey follows through with these concepts, with certain points on the record seeing the rapper tread water slightly, both lyrically and musically. After all, the overarching themes of this project are hardly revolutionary undertakings for a hip hop artist, and there are only a handful of instances in which Joey provides his own exceptional piece of insight to the ongoing discussion of African-American politics. All in all, however, whilst the themes of ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ lose steam at times, the project is another encouraging release from Joey Bada$$, and it’s one from which he will undoubtedly learn and evolve, as he has consistently done thus far in his career.
Just as noticeable as the musical tone shift on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ are the changes Joey makes to his usual style of lyric-writing, and not solely with regards to the topics covered on this record. Just as the overall sound of the album is a lot more accessible to a mainstream rap audience compared to the traditional hardcore hip hop stylings of B4.DA.$$, the rapper also makes the artistic decision to simplify his turns of phrases as to not equivocate the meaning behind these songs in any way, whereas, before now, his bars have typically been very dense, packed with double entendres and meticulous detail. Indeed, whilst the lyrical content of this new album is far more direct and generally straightforward than previous Joey Bada$$ projects, I mean that not as a criticism, rather I acknowledge that this should be understood not as a dumbing down of his style to suit a broader audience, but respected as a more candid attitude that seeks to articulate his many thoughts in as clear a way as possible. In this regard, many tracks that land on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ are equally as impressive as much of the material on the album’s predecessor, just in a very different manner. The first full-length song on the album, FOR MY PEOPLE, for instance, sees the MC swiftly and cleanly roll through bar after bar of quotidian struggles for his friends, family and peers, whilst acknowledging the means by which various black people can rise above these limitations and help the community at large, with Joey’s means being his ability as a rapper. Whilst the artist’s buoyancy and smooth flow as he bustles through all of these rapid fire bars is impressive to listen to, I can’t help but also feel that, with this approach, there are few especially remarkable lines, with no one couplet feeling any more stressed than another. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, there is certainly the odd line that feels as though it should carry more weight than those surrounding it, but without particularly emphasising any specific moments in the song, it’s difficult to tell whether or not this was Joey’s intention and, as a result, there are only a handful of notably memorable lyrical moments on FOR MY PEOPLE. Another contributing factor to this is the fact that, for the most part, the extent to which the rapper touches on any of these topics in an expressly unique fashion is rather limited, instead largely directing the same criticisms at the same targets without adding much in terms of refreshing insight. Indeed, this does seem to be a trend across much of ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ that shows not necessarily a lack of focus or actualisation, rather a slight shortfall when it comes to the drive that would make this project something really special.
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ undoubtedly conveys the full strength of Joey’s lyrical chops, although it seems that this is true more so of specific bars, verses and songs, as opposed to the overall narrative of the album. Perhaps the best example of Joey putting his own definitive spin on the discussion of black politics in hip hop is on the track Y U DON’T LOVE ME? (MISS AMERIKKKA), in which the MC illustrates the relationship between African-Americans and the US through a story of unrequited love between himself and the female personification of his country. In doing this, the rapper creates a rather ingenious arena in which he can comment on oft-cited racial subjects in an individual way, such as how he addresses the stereotype of the angry black person as if this woman is overly-critical of his bad moods, or the way in which the woman doesn’t allow him to ever take pride in his successes, which is clearly a remark regarding the negative portrayal of black empowerment. Ultimately, however, the undercurrent of this song is one of grief, in that Joey has done so much for this woman and yet she still won’t accept his love; a poignant observation regarding the history of black people’s contributions to the development of the United States, contrasted with the way in which they have historically been treated. Other tracks from ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ may not be founded on the same sort of solid conceptual framework as Y U DON’T LOVE ME? (MISS AMERIKKKA), but nevertheless display some fantastic wordplay from Joey. The bar on Babylon, for instance, in which the MC states that nowadays, as opposed to being lynched from trees, African-Americans are being hanged from the branches of the government, is probably one of the most outstanding lines on the entire record, being as witty as it is horribly dark. It is a shame, however, that Joey felt the need, as a handful of rappers have done recently, to hop on the bandwagon of a particular conspiracy theory with his reference to chemtrails, which briefly put a dent in his credibility, although he only mentions this passingly, so it can perhaps be slightly forgiven. Ultimately, however, whilst there are most definitely plenty of individual moments that shine as lyrical highlights on ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, the broader underlying arc of the album doesn’t seem to be fully realised, with certain songs, particularly DEVASTATED and LEGENDARY, hardly playing into its narrative at all and arguably interrupting its flow slightly.
As for the sonic side of ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, the general mood of the record is a very enjoyable one, with the production being consistently vibrant and the jazzy instrumentation incorporating more modern and palatable sensibilities rather well. The album gets off to a particularly impressive start with the short introductory track, GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA, over which Joey spits some great bars with the level of youthful exuberance that has made him such a promising MC, atop a sparse, ice-cold keyboard progression that emphasis his flow nicely. The most satisfying aspect of this cut is how seamlessly it transitions into FOR MY PEOPLE, which opens with one of Joey’s best sung hooks on the entire record atop some jazzy ambiance, before a punchy drum fill brings in the rapper’s first verse, performed with the peppy delivery that conveys a great deal of energy without taking any of the attention away from his words. TEMPTATION continues the high that ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ gets off to, and is successful for many of the same reasons as FOR MY PEOPLE, featuring one of Joey’s best sung performances and another jazz-tinged, syrupy smooth beat that is incredibly infectious. For the most part, the guest appearances that Joey employs on the album are put to use rather effectively, with ScHoolboy Q contributing one of the most hard-hitting verses from the album on his feature on ROCKABYE BABY, and with some of Joey’s Pro Era friends, as well as Meechy Darko of Flatbush Zombies, putting together an impressive posse cut on RING THE ALARM. However, whilst the overall atmosphere of the record is rather pleasant, there is surely room for some more musical variety, particularly later on in the tracklisting. Tracks like SUPER PREDATOR and AMERIKKKAN IDOL, although boasting some great performances from Joey, feel somewhat tired sonically speaking, with the same style of slick, jazz rap production appearing here that was featured in a more interesting format on tracks like FOR MY PEOPLE and TEMPTATION, with these beats also not supporting Joey’s flow quite as well as they could do. Indeed, whereas the hardcore, boom bap beats of B4.DA.$$ were executed with a great deal of understanding regarding what makes this style of production work, the pop rap sound of ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ doesn’t seem quite as consistent and cohesive, with certain tracks paling in comparison to others in a way that I don’t think was quite the case on Joey’s full-length debut.
Given how radically different they are, in both approach and execution, comparing B4.DA.$$ and ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is rather difficult and, ultimately, unnecessary. Joey Bada$$ always gave the impression of a rapper who would look to constantly alter his image and evolve as an artist, and so the prominent stylistic shifts between his two albums works in accordance with what many would have predicted. This latest album is certainly a solid and incredibly promising release for the young rapper that is, in some regards, just as successful as its precursor, albeit for very different reasons. On the other hand, the much more elementary approach to ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, in terms of both music and lyrics, left Joey susceptible to issues concerning the definitive identity of this record that he doesn’t entirely overcome, with certain moments adhering to a relatively clear-cut pop rap style without advancing this in the way that B4.DA.$$ did with 90s East Coast hip hop. Nevertheless, Joey’s personality and potential shines through once again and, although his abilities regarding the conception of the narrative of his latest record suggest room for further maturation, we can leave it to the 22-year-old MC to continue growing with each new release.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10