Album Review: Joey Bada$$ – 1999

[Self-released; 2012]

Revivalism can be a tricky business. On the one hand, if whatever sound you’re taking on has truly become relegated to near-nothingness, chances are pretty much certain that its core audience is still out there, somewhere, clamoring for a return to form. On the other, if critics and a fickle consumer base aren’t in the mood, it’s all too easy to brand it mimicry lacking unique substance. Truly, there’s no area of music for which it’s so tempting to grant an arbitrary scorecard. Revival acts either blossom or crash and burn, all riding on the taste of the year it arrives in, branded either clever and nostalgic, or shallow and derivative. The point is, depending on the listener, either can be true.

In 2012, no genre’s in more of a hotbed for risk and reward than golden era hip-hop. Artists such as Roc Marciano and Action Bronson have garnered accolades for their throwback vibes, while the likes of A$AP Rocky and SpaceghostPurpp have also gained attention for splicing the sounds of yesteryear with current sensibilities. Still, with Drake and co.’s fuzzed out 808’s interpretations ruling the radio, it’s hard to imagine beats that wish they’d been made for Illmatic regaining serious posture on the airwaves.

That doesn’t stop fans of rap’s golden age – along with the army of hipsters who decided they were hip hop experts when Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II dropped – from wanting the sound they prefer.

Enter Joey Bada$$. Ignore the perhaps regrettable name, and press play on 1999. The 17 year-old Brookyln MC has been catching a fair amount of hype lately, mounting with his gaining a spot on this year’s Smoker’s Club tour, leading to more and more press. So, the important question: is all the talk merited?

If 1999 is a sign of bigger things to come, the short answer is “quite possibly.” The mixtape struggles with exactly what one might expect: ‘90s hip-hop’s continued popularity. Joey Bada$$ takes his ‘90s music seriously. He even jokes on his Facebook profile that he was born and died in 1995. By so loyally remaining within his influences’ style, Bada$$ both manages to both capture a surprising amount of that energy and lose a bit of substance.

His lyrical staples are essentially the same as every tune from the generation: growing up in the hood, scheming women, trust issues, and so on. More often than not, Joey tackles these topics with gusto, but a small something can’t help but be lost in the process. As much as it’d be appealing to have endless versions of Raekwon’s debut tossed at us, it wouldn’t allow for much growth. The beats are smooth, the vibe intact, and off that alone, it’s certain Joey Bada$$ has a solid blog career ahead of him. The standout tracks in particular hint at potential greatness, such as “Survival Tactics,” which boasts the effort’s finest beat, and “Hardknock,” on which, much to his credit, Bada$$ somehow makes the whole ‘get out the game’ yarn interesting again.

If he wants more, however, he’s going to have to find something that inspires his own substance, just as his idols once did. There’s a difference between worshipping a playbook — using it, building upon it – and simply taking from it. It’d be unfair to accuse Joey of just doing the latter–this mixtape is one of the more solid golden era revival efforts in recent memory–but just imagine what he could do if he just reached a bit further. For now, the kid deserves congratulations for crafting such a notable debut project–he’s got time for all that other stuff.