Joey Bada$$ was four years old in 1999, the year that marks the title of his debut mixtape. That’s not necessarily remarkable on its face — hip-hop has seen its share of young upstarts outshine its elder statesmen. Earl Sweatshirt, as a recent example, is just a year Joey’s senior. And Nas, responsible for one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, landed a major label contract at 19. What is remarkable about Joey Bada$$, aside from the fact that the name wasn’t already taken, is simultaneously how confidence and effortless he sounds, as well as how fluidly he incorporates an old-school jazz-rap sound.
Right off the bat, looking at the list of producers Joey raps over on 1999, the young Bada$$ has hand-picked beats by some pretty remarkable names: MF DOOM, Lord Finesse, Statik Selektah and J Dilla, to name a few. These organic, crackly sample beds create a satisfying throwback to the `90s for the emcee, part of a Brooklyn-based collective called Progressive Era, to spit his game. And he’s most definitely got some game, albeit one whose biggest participants belong to a past era. The exclamation-punctuated “Survival Tactics” comes packaged with a long list of one-liners (“Niggas don’t want war, I’m a martian/with an army of Spartans”, “We got `em niggas P-E- nuts/ like they elephants”). A chopped-and-screwed Pinky and the Brain introduce “World Domination,” which certainly puts Joey’s point of reference back somewhere in the mid-`90s, though the DOOM beat doesn’t hurt either. And Bada$$ keeps an earthy, grounded perspective on “Waves,” confessing, “Since ’95 my mama’s been working 9-5/ and the landlord’s fed up with our lives,” before he takes off with his own ambitions.
There’s a youthful sensibility to 1999 that only subtly reveals Bada$$’s age, but the aesthetic he pursues is distinctly one of a previous era. Joey Bada$$ wasn’t even alive when Native Tongues, Hieroglyphics and Nas first emerged, but he’s made a convincing case for reviving their sensibilities. He’s got a long way to go, but the command he has over his material is one giant leap in the right direction.