Joey Bada$$ has emerged as one of the the strongest voices in the current generation of hip hop. His seminal 1999 mixtape is a throwback to the golden-era of New York boom bap, channeled by the promising young rapper and his tight-knit Pro Era crew. While the other members showed some promise, after the death of Capital Steez it was clear that Joey would emerge as the most influential and successful out of the Pro Era camp.
His commercial debut, B4.DA.$$ capitalized on his hype and departed from his gritty throwback aesthetic, adopting elements of modern trap to create a new New York sound that hit just as hard as his early material while incorporating elements of southern rhythms and west coast production gloss. Joey’s flow and vocal performance also matured as he starting singing more and rapping more aggressively. It was proof that he is determined to create his own sound and not to drown in his influences. With this next album, I was curious to see if he would continue to carve out the lane he created for himself or to continue to mature and grow by developing new styles and approaches to his music.
- Good Morning Amerikkka
Produced by DJ Khalil
In the short introduction to the album, Joey packs his thesis into a single verse. He calls for Americans to question how free they really are in a country where citizens are killed by an unregulated police presence and facts and information are distorted to manipulate the consciousness of the culture. While this isn’t exactly new territory for politically-minded rap, that doesn’t mean what he’s saying isn’t important or relevant. He advocates for oppressing the oppressors as he traces America’s history from slavery to segregation to the civil rights movement to the more subtle but no less devastating institutional racism of today. While I find some of the Christ comparisons and martyrdom references here a bit melodramatic, I think Joey’s concept for the album is solid. To make his point effectively, he will need to flesh out his arguments and present them in a way that is both captivating and novel.
- For My People
Produced by DJ Khalil & 1-900
I really like this song. I just love what’s going on musically. The boom-bap drums are sharp and driving against the laid back whining synthesizer, and Joey’s catchy and understated singing on the chorus make this song really easy to vibe to. While it might be my favorite on the album to listen to, it falls short once you start to pick apart the lyrics. While I like the concept of Joey being some kind of superhero who acts as a savior to a populace in peril, his execution is lacking. He talks about using the microphone as a weapon, but only seems to talk about doing it and doesn’t fire any shots. He mentions how tough it is for section eight, but spends just as much time discussing how he wants to make enough money for himself and his family without mentioning how he’s going to uplift his community as a whole in the process. If he really wants to send a message of unity against oppression, he needs to connect his success with the success of his community and I don’t think he connected those dots here.
Produced by 1-900 & Kirk Knight
This is the first song on the album that shows me that Joey has really begun to craft his songs with live performances in mind. You can tell with the way the verses build up to the chorus and how catchy easy the song is to sing along to. You could argue that Joey is selling out his underground sound, but to me this is just what Joey genuinely sounds like above ground after he’s gained some notoriety. There were glimpses of his singing on “Like Me” and “Teach Me” off his last album, but he’s clearly developed this more accessible and articulate sound to compliment his new platform. While it might alienate some of the “backpack rap” fan-base, he’ll make up for it tenfold with his new audience.
That being said, this isn’t the most profound or thought-provoking song on the album. When Joey says something generic like, “If you wanna make change, it’s gonna take commitment” or “I never sell my soul because that’s priceless” it feels like his accessible sound is being underutilized. If he kept the same ideas, but came with an approach or some word play that made it more impactful, I think he would have a much stronger song on his hands. I can vibe with the sound of this song, but the lyrics hold it back from realizing its potential.
- Land of the Free
Produced by 1-900 & Kirk Knight
After a string of two songs that miss the mark lyrically, “Land of the Free” finally delivers something thought-provoking. While the idea of “can’t change the world unless we change ourselves” and the reference to Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted aren’t exactly original, they set up the song to offer some salient points on race relations in America. Joey says: “In the land of the free, it’s full of freeloaders / Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors”.
America is described as a place where the American Dream is a reality, where through hard, honest work, any citizen can become prosperous and provide for their family, but in reality America is a capitalist oligarchy based on hundreds of years of oppression. Power and capital have always been accumulated through prejudice and manipulation, which has evolved from slavery to segregation, systemic racism and disenfranchisement. Many of those who are well-off aren’t the hardest working. Oftentimes they’re freeloaders benefiting from the free forced labor of black Americans from slavery to prison labor.
This is the kind of song that successful gets Joey’s message across. It’s got a modern boom-bap instrumental, well-structured songwriting, and a catchy hook containing poignant observations about the state of the country. It strikes the perfect balance of fitting in with the theme and sound of the album without falling into cliché lyrics and uninspired production.
Produced by 1-900, Kirk Knight & Powers Pleasant
This is the hardest hitting and most accessible track on the album. It might be more impactful for me if it hadn’t come out last May and in the last year of listening to this song in the car and at the gym, it has lost some of its punch. That being said, this song bumps. It’s faster pace and trap-flavored drums add some much-needed diversity to an album full of mid-tempo boom-bap songs. I’m all for concept albums having a cohesive sound, but too much of the same production can start to blend together and make the album sound monotonous.
- Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)
Produced by 1-900 & Powers Pleasant
This track is pretty good. I’m not crazy about it, but that has more to do with how this song doesn’t make any effort to stand out musically from the rest of the project than the quality of the song itself. It’s another sleepy, modern, boom-bap, mid-tempo storytelling track with an understated chorus. It’s not that these elements aren’t executed well, it’s just that this sound is done better on “For My People” and this track doesn’t do anything different well enough to hold my attention. And that’s rather unfortunate, because this song has some good things to offer.
Joey aptly personifies American culture as a woman he’s in a broken relationship with. The lack of compassion America has for black culture belittles his accomplishments and blows his mistakes out of proportion. It doesn’t seem right to blame someone for harboring resentment in a broken relationship and that’s the point Joey is trying to make. I just he was able to add his lyricism to something a little more adventurous musically.
- Rockabye Baby (featuring ScHoolboy Q)
Produced by Chuck Strangers
I didn’t know I needed a ScHoolboy Q and Joey Bada$$ collaboration until I heard this song, but boy did I ever. They mesh so well and I don’t think ScHoolboy has delivered a bad guest verse in a long time. Since 1999 Chuck Strangers has delivered fantastic production and the animated and aggressive performances from Joey and ScHoolboy help this song rise above the sleepy tracks on the album.
In the first verse, Joey calls for unity among the oppressed and urges them to go back to communities policing themselves in the face of untrustworthy, militant and corrupt police forces. ScHoolboy even gets in on the message of the album, saying, “”From gettin’ lynched in field to ownin’ buildings / Getting millions, influencin’ white children / And oddly we still ain’t even / Still a small percentage of blacks that’s eatin”. He wants to make sure his success stays in perspective, acknowledging both the historical context and how much of an outlier his career in a country with massive racial income inequality. All in all, this song delivers on a visceral level and packs a powerful message. I can dig it.
- Ring the Alarm (featuring Kirk Knight, Nyck Caution & Meech Darko)
Produced by 1-900 & Kirk Knight
Although I loved B4.DA.$$, one thing that I love about the rest of Joey’s projects is the obligatory posse cut. It was “Suspect” on 1999, “Satellite” on Summer Knights, and “Last Cypher” on PEEP: The aPROcalypse. Bringing in Meechy from Flatbush Zombies and two of Pro Era’s best lyricists for some verbal sparring makes this the essential backpack track on the album. While I enjoy the track, it doesn’t really fit into the theme of the album, but I’ll give it a pass. It’s a nice break.
- Super Predator (featuring Styles P)
Produced by Statik Selektah
One of the biggest reasons Joey’s last album achieved the heights it did was due to the superstar lineup on the production credits. While there isn’t a DJ Premier or J-Dilla on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Statik Selektah comes close. A prodigy of Preemo, Statik has become Joey’s touring DJ and their chemistry is undeniable. Statik is able to create jazzy boom-bap tracks and bring energy out of Joey in a way that some of his in-house producers don’t.
In a song whose title is based on a term used to paint black Americans as remorseless violent criminals, Joey doesn’t delve too much into the issue but Styles P goes in: “My dead presidents ain’t dead enough […] Niggas built the country but never gettin’ they props due […] Lost soul in a land full of promises”. On a conceptual album like this, I’m glad Joey has been able to ensure that his features, aside from those on the posse cut, have largely remained on point.
- Babylon (featuring Chronixx)
Produced by Like & 1-900
To be honest, I don’t like this song very much. Even though Joey is aggressive vocally and I like some of the reggae he’s been sprinkling into his music recently, it just doesn’t come together on this track. Some of the bars are a cringey–especially the turn the M’s upside down bit–and the production from Like & 1-900 doesn’t click for me either. Skip.
Produced by Statik Selektah
This was the track I was most excited about. J. Cole almost never does features, but after getting Joey’s blessing to use the “Waves” instrumental on “False Prophets”, he returned the favor by jumping on this track, and I was sure once I saw that Staik was producing that it would be good. Unfortunately, while there are some nice lines in the verses, the song doesn’t do much for me. The beat isn’t bad, the skipping drums and meandering horns are nice, but as far as the album goes it just feels like more of the same. I’ve kept this song on repeat, but I just can’t get into it.
12. Amerikkkan Idol
Produced by DJ Khalil
Joey wraps up the album by re-emphasizing the mistreatment of black Americans in our culture, and talks about how a combination of his race and fame has made him feel unsafe in his home. While the instrumental continues the trend of mid-tempo sleepy boom-bap with driving drums, I like how Joey is experimenting with his flow. The rapping in the first verse is fast and technical and creates a sense of urgency over the relaxed beat that works well.
The second verse is a short lead up to the extended third verse–that sounds like 2000’s era Immortal Technique by the way–where Joey warns against the malicious intentions of the US government, who he predicts will use an uprising as an excuse to be even more heavy-handed in their oppression. Despite that fact, Joey feels a violent rebelling is necessary in light of centuries of abuse and being ignored. Because of the injustice and blatant racism, there is no other option, and he might be right. In a speech in 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. condemned violent protest, but also said:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. […] As long as America postpones justice we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.
Martin Luther King, Jr., The Other America, 1967
While I may have some issues with the fact that the music on this album doesn’t vary enough from song to song, I have to give Joey his due for putting together an album that is thought-provoking, inspires me to be more socially aware, and even has me revisiting MLK speeches. In times like these, it’s easy to rail against the Donald Trumps of the world, but it takes a certain level of wisdom to put the times in a historical context. I think what Joey has accomplished here is important and I’m glad he had the courage to address what he felt was important on his sophomore commercial album instead of cashing in on his rising fame. Good on you Joey, can’t wait for the next one.