Joey Bada$$’s ‘B4.DA.$$’: Album Review

That mysterious photo of Malia Obama in a Pro Era shirt may have flummoxed the Secret Service, but it’s the latest indicator suggesting hip-hop revivalism is for the kids. The obsession with NYC’s “Golden Age” of rap is no longer solely the realm of bitter, old hip-hop heads, as young New York MCs like Pro Era leader Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Bishop Nehru and Your Old Droog (and, by extension, their fans) embrace the street-wise lyricism and psychedelic boom-bap of that early ’90s East Coast movement.

Arguably no millennial is more committed to this than Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, whose expertly crafted, oddly anachronistic 1999 mixtape invited comparisons to Native Tongues and Illmatic. Today, January 20, the rapper celebrates his 20th birthday by releasing his debut album, B4.DA.$$, aiming to bring this storied sound into the modern age. This is iconoclastic in its own roundabout way, like what The Strokes were trying to do at the turn of the millennium for scuzzy ’70s Lower East Side rock.

To pull this off, Joey enlisted veteran producers who shaped the post-Low End Theory landscape, including DJ Premier, J Dilla, and The Roots, along with his Pro Era cohorts Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers who have perfected that blunted jazz crackle. These weathered arrangements match with wizened wordplay that alternately recalls Wu-Tang Clan‘s gruff rambunctiousness and Prodigy‘s icy calm. Standout “No. 99,” is thrilling despite being a rehash of A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Scenario,” and the Biggie references on lyrical workout “Big Dusty” are earned, as Joey unleashes a dexterous string of Halloween candy-themed threats.

B4.DA.$$ is ultimately more about reverence than revitalization, so it’s not until the back half that the Brooklynite plants these vintage markers on new, poppier territory, with drum ‘n bass sprints, woozy ballads, Kiesza‘s dance commander vocals, and Hit-Boy‘s Makaveli-meets-Cruel Summer “Belly of the Beast.” Even in these more modern moments, though, B4.DA.$$ reminds listeners that vintage beats and rhymes have plenty of life left. The album’s subtle pleasures, like the purposeful mispronunciation of “Putin” to mimic the “pew pew” gun sound, may not help Joey Bada$$ steal the youth vote away from his brasher peers, but he has already reached the White House anyway. Now let’s see how he campaigns after the money.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

— Carl Williott