Release Date: January 20, 2015
Label: Cinematic Music Group/Pro Era
Though Joey Bada$$ has turned icy in the past when critics compare his music to ’90s boom-bap, he seems to have gotten over it. On his long-awaited proper debut album, B4.DA.$$, he even gets legendary golden-era producer DJ Premier to handle a track — good for him. So he and a lot of other 19-year-olds love Gang Starr and J Dilla and dressing like Brenda from Beverly Hills, 90210. In the ’90s, kids loved digging in thrift stores for bell bottoms and shirts with butterfly collars. We romanticize the past, especially the one we didn’t exist in.
The problem isn’t the Brooklyn native’s devotion to his influences. By his own admission, Bada$$ studied primarily East Coast rappers, and yes, those dudes have always skewed more serious than Southern or West Coast artists. The problem is that Bada$$ seems to have missed their lessons on levity. His style — often-poetic lyrics rapped in a blunted monotone over moody production — is skilled, but never very fun. Unless you’re a teenager trying to establish aesthetic lines in the sand or an old hip-hop head who still gets excited about a Wu-Tang Clan reunion show, over the course of an hour those cloudy beats and Badass’ unrelenting, I-really-mean-it flow get kinda tedious.
Whereas the Notorious B.I.G. could simultaneously break your heart and make you smile, Badass rarely succeeds in doing either. On relative highlight “Black Beetles,” Chuck Strangers’ gently plaintive production is a perfect backdrop for rainy day contemplation, but although Badass is saying the right words (“They got me low on self-esteem,” he repeats), they never squeeze your soul the way Bada$$ hero Biggie did with a couplet like “Sewing tigers on my shirts, and alligators / You wanna see the inside? I’ll see ya later.”
“O.C.B.” is a great, boozy, Rat Pack-y standout, thanks to New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels. Based on playground rhymes like “Yo Jo-Vaughn, clean your room, OCD, OCD / I used to wanna be like ODB, ODB / Now I’m a rap star, OMG, OMG,” Bada$$ has some sense of humor. Yet he raps those lines in much the same way a bored senior would read aloud in class.
The sun does break through every now and then on B4.DA.$$, usually via outside help: BJ the Chicago Kid (who has been slept on since at least 2009) channeling Marvin Gaye on “Like Me” or Hit-Boy continuing his low-key winning streak with the restrained “Belly of the Beast.” Even Bada$$ himself positively shines on “Curry Chicken,” which feels like a particularly uplifting Sunday morning service, and for the breezy three-and-a-half minutes of “Piece of Mind,” you’ll wish you were a kid skating through Flatbush. But these piecemeal moments are about the extent of the excitement here, and isn’t that precisely what a debut should spark?