It says a lot about Joey Bada$$ that in 2012, he released a mixtape called 1999. His debut showcased the Illmatic-esque style he had. B4.DA.$$, like its title, first appears to be mere clever word play, but on a second listen there’s a lot of poignancy to it. On his highly anticipated debut album, Joey Bada$$ talks about the struggles of fame and having money, but also his life “before the money”. After receiving criticism for Bada$$’s style similar to the 90’s boom bap style, everyone was waiting to see what this young-kid rapper had to say.
When Joey Bada$$ was criticised for his old school style on 1999, he reacted by going even further back to the origins of hip hop. Before albums like Illmatic or even songs like “Rappers Delight”, Hip-Hop was formed in the Bronx as an evolution of Caribbean dance music—MCs would say “toasts” over beats. The east coast “boom-bap” style rap is still there on B4.DA.$$, but Joey incorporates a heavy reggae influence. Punchy bass guitar, percussion (shakers), and calypso is sprinkled throughout this album. In addition, reggae artists like Chronixx and Maverick Sabre pop up to add the finishing touches. As he claims in the track “Big Dusty”, Joey really does play “close to his roots” on this record.
Joey’s style has long evolved from the Illmatic-esque style he first displayed in his four mixtapes. In B4.DA.$$ , Joey’s weighty rhyme scheme and complex word play is reminiscent of MF DOOM’s style. What sets Joey apart? MF DOOM raps for the sake of rapping. Operation: Doomsday is exemplary of DOOM’s narrative rapping style; the album is laced with skits to enhance the story DOOM is trying to tell. But Joey raps with a point to prove. His profound lyrics paired with his rhymes hits hard. For example, in “Save the Children” Joey speaks of the lack of media attention about violence in the slums: “It’s all a hidden history of mysteries/I see vividly, hysteria.”
The album plays out like a story, half of it in medias res. The conclusion? Life was indeed better before the money. In “Paper Trail$”, Joey sums up his reality: “Before the money, there was love/but before the money, it was tough”. He claims that after gaining fame and money from rapping, it is no longer as enjoyable—but he is also aware that the money from rapping is what allows him to escape from his bleak former reality. But at what cost? For one, Joey finds that the rap game is taking too much time away from his personal life, and even his health. In “Curry Chicken” his mother says “Boy you lookin thinner/but you lookin like a winner aye.”
For the most part, B4.DA.$$ is everything we hoped it could be. It’s conscious, entertaining, and shows a progression that many thought Joey wouldn’t be able to make from his signature sounds. But it does have it’s low points. “Teach Me” falls flat; it’s metaphor– dancing in a club paralleled as dancing through life– is ambitious, but fails largely because of a misdirected sound.
B4.DA.$$ is not a perfect album, but Joey proved himself to be a rapper the world cannot put a finger on. His style is evolving and he’s got the world listening. This album is a solid nine dolla$ out of ten.