I’ve fell in love with the idea of New York City in the early 90s, before I was even a teenager. It was the movies and the music that did it, mostly. Hip-hop artists, largely, if I’m being honest. A Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Biggie, the Beasties, MF Doom, etc. Eventually I got into Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. I even watched bad New York-set TV shows and followed hate-able New York sports teams simply because they were in New York. So when I moved here, I had a lot of expectations. Almost two decades worth. And while life here is certainly a beast of its own, the city is every bit as alive, amazing, tough and beautiful as I expected. And Brookyln – oh Brooklyn. Not the new preppy/hipster hoods, but the other places – they’re hip-hop. It’s everywhere. Endless graffiti, countless murals of Biggie, music coming from every few stoops. So, needless to say, I’ve been happy to find that most of the best hip-hop released over the last year has come out of New York. Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, Nas, El-P, Roc Marciano and, most importantly, Joey Bada$$ – a 17-year-old Brooklyn-based emcee that I can, without hesitation, call my favorite current emcee.
Joey and his twisty verses don’t just make for my favorite current emcee, but his debut “mixtape” (which you can download for free), is the best introduction to a new rapper I’ve heard since … well, maybe since the first Qwel solo record about a decade ago. The record, comprised of beats both new and old, sees the young emcee performing ridiculously detailed, compex and poetic verses over beats “borrowed” from producers like Madlib, Divine Styler, MF Doom and more. And while the idea of someone recycling beats tends to put me off, Joey’s performances and lyrics are so good that I’ve essentially forgotten all about the original songs that Joey takes from. Likewise, Joey often nods to punchlines and verses from hip-hop’s past, most often taking from 90s-era NYC-released boom-bap records. That a guy this young has already seemingly digested the Golden Era of hip-hop and used it to create his own brilliant, nostalgic style is impressive.
Some of the credit for the creative aptitude we hear on 1999, I think, should be attributed not only to the eccentric, diverse, creative and adult-oriented Brooklyn culture he grew up in, but the high school he was – or maybe even still is – attending. That school, Edward R. Murrow High School in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, is known for its arts-friendly culture, pumping out countless creative types over the years, including painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, Oscar-winning actress Marisa Tomei, American chess champions Irina Krush, Alex Lenderman and Salvijus Bercys, actress Zoe Lister-Jones and now, of course, Joey Bada$$ (whom, I should note, doesn’t like high school, rapping “Got sick of class / Started making classics).
Soon to turn 18, Joey (birth name Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott) has an awful lot going for him. In addition to his peerless beat selection and uncanny ability to write both rhythmically- and percussively-sound verses to minimalist productions, the young emcee is surrounded by a creative, tasteful crew of people. Fellow emcees, filmmakers and business people alike. The degree of his preternatural ability has New York following his every move, hardly able to wait to see what he does next. A proper LP with all original productions? Some more beautifully produced music videos? A collaborative record with his Pro Era crew (who are more or less a much more talented alternative to those Odd Future dopes). Or maybe more song-stealing cameos like the one he just did on ASAP Rocky’s debut record? Whatever Joey does next, a whole lot of hip-hop purists will be waiting for it anxiously, fully expecting the best proper debut studio record since Ready to Die was released almost 20 years ago.
Still, I can’t quite call 1999 a new classic. The borrowed beat element keeps me from going that far. Also, the record is about four songs too bloated for such praise. All that said, Joey’s vocal performances and writing here are some of the best the hip-hop genre has seen in a long time. 1999 begs me to believe that this particular emcee might be the first new era natural the hip-hop genre has seen. So as long as he keeps working hard on his verses, surrounding himself with creative, tasteful collaborators, and picking out timeless, clean productions, I think Joey just might be able to achieve his stated goal – to dethrone that other big-name Brooklyn emcee, Jay-Z. Me? I already prefer Joey.