Like Tyler, the Creator and the Odd Future crew, Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era cohorts seemed to arrive on the scene fully formed, with a complete sonic and aesthetic identity. Where Odd future was all about being as transgressive and offensive as possible and mashing skate punk with rap, Pro Era was set on reviving New York’s golden age of hip-hop. Joey’s “1999” mixtape last year said it all: he and the Pro Era wanted to see New York return to the period when the city was still the center of the hip-hop universe, before Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, L.A., Chicago, and Detroit (and London, and Adelaide, and Berlin) proved that they could make hip-hop that was more interesting than what NYC was putting out. People were quick to praise the Brooklyn teenager as the second coming of Nas, a rap Messiah set to lead the Five Boroughs back to the promised land of musical relevance.
I imagine that Joey had the same sensation a lot of us old timers have when he revisited “Illmatic” or “The Low End Theory” after hearing the millionth club rap album or street rap mixtape full of synthesizers and rappers with limited lyrical ability. It’s like having a home-cooked meal when you’ve been eating nothing but frozen pizzas for weeks on end. I imagine him thinking, “so THIS is what hip-hop is supposed to sound like!” and then going out and doing his best to channel that mid-nineties vibe. The good news is that he still manages to capture that Native Tongues feel on his latest mixtape, “Summer Knights.” The bad news is that he sometimes falls into the same traps that ultimately led to the demise of the sound he’s so fond of.
Let’s start with the positives. Joey Bada$$ can rap. He’s eighteen, but he’s got bars, building his verses on clever wordplay rather than swagger, as he proves on “Hilary Swank”:
“Yo, hip-hop is a jungle
Lost in his time I’m just trying get it like a Porsche in its prime
These fake niggas sublime, life of fine sights
Visual fortune but the price ain’t quite right
The slice ain’t quite ripe
Still pulling strings how I fly but I don’t like kites
How they gonna treat Brooklyn’s finest not as fine as diamonds?
If I nice, surrounded by hard flow like Icelands
Now we getting icing, finances nice
And I don’t like surprises, I like superb prices rising
It’s the least I could do, these verses priceless”
The mixtape is aptly named. A lot of it has the feel of a lazy summer day or a hot summer night. The beats are head-nodding without being overly aggressive or flashy, and Joey has a languid, easy flow. It’s the kind of music for cruising around on a hot, lazy night, or talking shit and drinking beers with friends. There is also a cloud hanging over much of the album. Joey’s friend and partner Capital Steez took his own life in December, and his ghost haunts this album. Joey is looking at his life and pondering his mortality on “Summer Knights. “And I’m gone,” Joey raps on “My Youth.” “I’ve been hurting way too long/and I can’t wait too long.” “The Death of YOLO” is about a young man getting killed trying to live up to the mantra “You Only Live Once:”
“Sedan in front swervin’ as the car stopped
In that split second, my foot stepping breaking
I thought to myself, I always knew that I would make it
All it took was patience, and now I’m on the stations
Luckily I made it right before my life was taken
It was too good to be mistaken for happiness and riches
People callin’ my phone, like they happy that we did it
Little did they know I was ’bout to meet my maker
Till an angel came down and told me that my time was later”
He addresses Capital Steez directly on the moving “#longlivesteelo:”
“But how, could I have done it without you though?
You was the big bro I never ever had, you know?
Why you had to go and hurt me inside?
I feel guilty walking down outside with false pride
If only we could vibe like, one more time
Hear one more line or share one more rhyme
Even show me one more sign of destiny yourself would be fine
But there’s no turning back the hands of time
Or delaying the plans of your mastermind
So I hope you came across of what you had to find
And watch over the ones you once loved!”
While the introspection adds a depth to “Summer Knights” that you often get from someone Joey’s age, it can also drag the mixtape down. In that way, “Summer Knights” suffers from the same over-seriousness that plagued a lot of 90s conscious rap, and ultimately caused it to be eclipsed by the funner, more irresponsible rap coming out of the South. At its lowest points, “Summer Knights” has the lethal combination of monochromatic beats, expressionless delivery, and killjoy rhymes that turned me off of indie rap for most of the 90s.
Those dour moments are relatively few, and are ultimately outshined by the combination of solid production and strong wordplay. The production is mostly sample-based with strong drums, just like New York was famous for back in the day. The producers range from new (Kirk Knight, Chuck Strangers) to established (Statik Selektah, Oddisee, Alchemist) to legends (MF DOOM, DJ Premier). The Premier joint, “Unorthodox,” is supposedly from Joey’s debut, which is set to drop in 2014. You might wonder why a dude that has dropped three mixtapes in less than a year is taking so long to release a proper album. His reasoning is that he wants it to be perfect. “Summer Knights” is his attempt to grow as an artist. Even with the occasional humorless rhyme and plodding beat, Joey Badda$$’s latest mixtape is further proof that he is a force to be reckoned with, and that the hype around him is not unwarranted.