Claiming a creative “rebirth” at 25 could very easily come across as being a bit premature — but then again Joey Bada$$ has always seemed wise beyond his years. This is an artist, after all, who first burst onto the scene in 2012 aged just 17 with his ‘1999’ mixtape: an exuberant and exhilarating release that not only showcased the Pro Era rapper’s proficiency as a technical MC, but also demonstrated his crate-deep knowledge of his native New York’s hip-hop heritage. “Resurrecting boom-bap from the tombs,” as he put it on ‘1999’’s ‘FromdaTomb’.
2017’s ‘All-Amerikkkan Bada$$’, though, saw Bada$$ widen his sonic palette a little by taking on a more politically conscious slant. The record saw him passionately address issues of police brutality, racial inequality in America and, on the track ‘Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)’, depict the relationship between African-Americans and the US as an unrequited love affair. “My greatest power is my voice,” the rapper said at the time. “So it starts with me bringing [these topics] into the conversation and putting it in the music.”
Since then, Bada$$’ output has been limited to sporadic features — linking up with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Westside Gunn and the late XXXTentacion in recent times — and contributions to the rap supergroup Beast Coast. “It’s not fast food,” Bada$$ explained to Complex in May about the reason behind the wait for new solo material. “I just need time. I’m talking about my life, my experiences. That doesn’t always happen in six months.”
The past three years have been “long”, Bada$$ admits. Fair enough: a lot has happened both in Bada$$’ personal life and the rap climate as a whole. In May he tweeted “just to think I had a whole child (who is now 2 years old) since I dropped new music”, while another tweet that he fired off recently — “just to think I haven’t dropped new music since the duration of rainbow boy’s career” — offered no points for guessing who he might have been referring to.
On ‘The Light’, the opening track from his new three-song “bundle” (categorically not an EP, as Bada$$ recently noted in a tweet: “Don’t call it an EP, I hate that”), there are shots fired at his peers and younglings: “World domination by determination / This is mumble rap extermination.” It’s easy to paint Bada$$’ return as an antidote to a generation of rap that is losing touch and respect for its roots; his classicist vibe still very much on display on these new three cuts.
Like with ‘All-Amerikkkan Bada$$’, though, Bada$$ continues to broaden the boom-bap production. The Roy Ayers-sampling ‘Shine’ feels almost early Kanye-like, while minimal, looped piano on ‘No Explanation’ sounds closer to the kind of avant-garde jazz-rap currently being fronted by the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Medhane. ‘The Light Pack’, then, feels less like the purported “rebirth” it’s being billed as and more like a natural progression for the artist.
If it is a rebirth, then it’s mostly in terms of the newfound sense of energy and urgency coming from Bada$$, as the songs are tight and his verses are sharp. The release bears a conceptual — and vaguely spiritual — theme too, with each song representing a different part of the human entity: the mind, body and soul.
Lead single ‘The Light’ is meant to represent the “soul”. With a chorus reminiscent of Wu-Tang Clan’s classic ‘C.R.E.A.M’, it sees Bada$$ acknowledging previous bouts of self-doubt (“I admit it I was gone for a lil minute / It’s like I lost my glow”) before regaining his belief (“My inner light was dimmin’ / Now I got my mojo back”) and sense of his purpose: “Unstoppable if it’s divinely guided / I’m like Mahatma Gandhi meets Muhammad Ali / Trapped in a rapper’s body”.
‘No Explanation’, which features Pusha T on stellar form as ever, represents the “mind” and sees Bada$$ admitting to having “been in my mind lately, been harder to find”. Like with ‘The Light’, he ultimately strives to be “a voice to this voiceless generation”. Closer ‘Shine’ — the “body” track — is less introspective and all about letting loose: “Gotta keep a steady dolla just to pacify the splurges / Satisfy the urges”. Despite the big trinity concept sell, you ultimately get the feeling that the mind/body/soul idea was shoehorned in after the fact as a way of piecing this brief, slightly patchwork release together.
The three tracks are meant to be a “foreword” to Bada$$’ next record, which he claims will be his “best album” yet. But, like with ‘The Light Pack’, don’t expect it to be a lengthy affair: there won’t be “too many things on the menu,” the rapper confirmed recently. “You come to my restaurant, motherfucker, it’s like 10 options. I hate when motherfuckers put out an album longer than 14 songs… Less is more, in my opinion.” On the evidence of this very succinct release, the mantra certainly rings true.
- Release date: July 17
- Record label: Pro Era / Columbia Records