Joey Badass Evolves With ‘All-Amerikkkan Badass,’ Can Rap Do The Same?

When Joey Badass appeared in 2012 with the nostalgic 1999, his throwback ethos and dedication to a bygone era intrigued, but didn’t really impress, the hip-hop establishment. Normally, I loathe comparing projects, but it’s necessary to make this point; namely, that Joey Badass could rap, but wasn’t really doing anything that hadn’t been done before. As someone who was around Joey’s age when the projects he aped actually released — projects like Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are…Black Star, Operation Doomsday, and the Rawkus Records compilations for the Lyricist Lounge — the effect was a akin to unexpectedly coming across a high school yearbook or a beloved childhood toy in a box in the attic during spring cleaning. It was a fun little surprise, a reminder of a time before bills, before kids, before taxes, before caring about the news and politics and civic responsibility… before real life. However, that real life stuff tends to be a lot more immediate, and that nostalgia doesn’t really impact anything that’s happening now.

Take a long enough look at practically any rap video or post for a neon-braided, prolifically tattooed “millennial-something” rapper on Youtube, and you’re certain to find a good amount of comments about how the music has fallen off and “no one cares about bars anymore these days”. (Fun drinking game, take a shot every time you see the phrase “this generation….” Tell the emergency room I sent you.) And, to a certain degree, there is some merit to their complaints — hip-hop has changed. But let’s be real, everybody wasn’t rapping like Rakim in the nineties, and “this generation’s” rappers should be more interested in moving the art forward than endlessly mimicking its past. Any genre that fails to evolve will eventually die when its audience gets bored with the same old same and moves on — just look at what happened to disco.

When it dropped, 1999 was a debut that had all the Real Hip-Hop Heads™ waxing vindicated about Real Hip-Hop™ coming back — for about a week. It had all the features of a mid-90’s genre classic: jazzy samples, head-nodding break beats, and a flow that wouldn’t have been out of place over a 1995 Diamond D production. Joey rapped almost exactly like a D.I.T.C. alum, over a J-Dilla beat no less! Old-school Rap Fan Twitter went bananas, but mentions of the new kid out of Brooklyn with the throwback flow petered out to zero as listeners’ attention returned to bigger name releases from the likes of Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, and Nas — incidentally the one MC Joey had drawn the most comparisons to. Meanwhile, Joey continued to serve up nostalgia for a time he and his peer group weren’t even old enough to remember (call it “Little Brother Complex”), causing the promising young rapper’s voice to stagnate on follow-ups Rejex, Summer Knights, and B4.DA.$$.

While each displayed a gift for convoluted, cerebral rhyme patterns and frankly awe-inspiring feats of breath control, all three projects felt a lot like style over substance — a bunch of rappity-rap about nothing over knockoff, latter-day Pete Rock beats that didn’t really reveal anything about Badass, other than that he really liked the 90’s — or thought he had to. Hip-hop has a bad habit of idealizing the past, canonizing long-deceased legends, and leaving the youth to fend for the themselves, struggling to appeal to a fanbase who aren’t inclined to give them a chance in the first place.

With All-Amerikkkan Badass, Joey finally steps out of his self-inflicted pigeonhole and once again shows the glimmers of brilliance he flashed on his debut. When he dropped the album’s lead single “Devastated” late last summer, the backlash he received for switching his style up was instant and excoriating, but included on the album, it sounds perfectly in line with the rest of the tracks. With a more modernized flow, and a more spacey/vibey background that hardcore Joey heads weren’t used to, “Devastated” announced early that the kid was ready to risk the ire of his day-ones to try something new, and the rest of Amerikkkan fulfills that promise in spades.

While breaking away from scratchy, MF Doom-laced jazz samples and filtered late ‘90s backpack-rap boom-bap, Amerikkkan doesn’t entirely eschew Joey’s musical roots; rather, it builds upon the foundation that was already there with lush, live instrumentation and soaring vocals that create a more interesting melodic landscape for conscious-minded diatribes against police brutality, media apathy, and widespread disenfranchisement directed toward Black folks in America. Amerikkkan contains both Joey’s familiar throwback elements and the growth that rap fans online clamored for, underlined by a healthy dose of the political and socially progressive direction many often lament is missing from modern rap.

On album-standout “Temptation,” when Joey barks “Tell me how we gon’ shape this vision / Complainin’ all day, but in the same condition / If you wanna make change, it’s gon’ take commitment” it almost feels like an address to those fair-weather, old-head fans, but that would have been just more uninteresting “disgruntled underground rapper” discontent. Instead, he delivers movement-minded agitation against police violence with the addition of a recording of an excerpt from a September 2016 speech given by Zianna Oliphant, a nine-year-old girl from Charlotte, North Carolina, tearfully addressing council meeting attendees shortly after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott: “We shouldn’t have to protest because you are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to and we have rights.”

Joey has always had bars, but now there is a message, and Badmon never loses sight of the mission once over the course of the hyper-focused twelve-song offering. He lends as much time to interrogating America’s backhanded treatment of its brown-skinned citizens, asking “Y U Don’t Love Me?” and challenging the depiction of young black men as “Super Predator,” as he does to once again leading his Pro Era cronies in battle-marching, rap-classical posse cut “Ring The Alarm.” Badass dips his toe into every phase of his personal evolution as an MC, from the menace of “Rockabye Baby” alongside TDE’s resident ruffian Schoolboy Q, to holding his own with J. Cole on the hyper-lyrical “Legendary.”

In fact, if there is any drawback on the album, it may be a bit too “super syllable subliminal lyrical miracle” for some listeners, but even in this, the relentless rhyme assault of AABA is so much more focused than it has been on past projects. Joey is on-topic and on-point in every breathless recitation, and he’s learned to used his voice as more of an instrument — changing inflection, clipping constants and elongating vowels, and taking wholes bars off to emphasize the effect of whatever he’s just said. He shows he’s truly made huge strides in craftsmanship, eventually tying off with “Amerikkkan Idol,” which begins with one of his most fiery rapid-fire rhyme spurts, bridged by vocalization, chanting, and freestyling, and finishing with a heartfelt, spoken-word admonishment of government policy and propaganda.

All-Amerikkkan Badass starts with the baseline theory of Real Hip-Hop™, strips away the complacency of nostalgia, and replaces it the urgency of modern American social conversation, then layers in guitars, keys, bass, and choral arrangements to bring back the old rebellious spirit of ‘90s rap without clinging to its trappings. This is what hip-hop should sound like in 2017, with all the resources and globalized influences available to the expanded musical palette afforded to the more plugged-in listener of the modern world. Joey Badass came into the rap game as a seventeen-year-old kid, trying too hard to live up to a legacy derived from a time that came and went while he was in pampers. Ironically, he had to let go of that time to truly carve out his own place in the rap landscape. In doing so, he’s not only lived up to that legacy, but transcended it. In short, Joey Badass has grown up. It’s long past time for hip-hop to prove that it can too.

All-Amerikkkan Badass is out now via Pro Era. Get it here.

Aaron Williams is an average guy from Compton. He’s a writer and editor for The Drew League and co-host of the Compton Beach podcast. Follow him here.