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.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.