Joey Bada$$ – ‘B4.DA.$$’

The 20-year-old New Yorker borrows the style of politicised '90s rap but not its substance

You could call Joey Bada$$ a victim of his own tardiness. Having broken out of the New York mixtape underground with fizzing breakout single ‘Survival Tactics’ three years ago, had ‘B4.DA.$$’ been released in mid-2014 as planned, this delayed debut album proper would have probably been hailed as a tidy tribute to Golden Age boom-bap, full of kush cloud chill and slinking nods to Nas’ defining ’90s rap fable ‘Illmatic’. Instead, arriving after 2014’s Ferguson crisis, its mining of Nas’ sound, with little of the New York hip-hop veteran’s socially conscious lyricism, feels weird. “Cash rules everything around me”, booms the 19-year-old, real name Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, over a smoky piano-laced beat on ‘Paper Trail$’, borrowing a line from Wu-Tang Clan’s iconic ’94 single ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ – but it’s delivered with none of the Staten Island heroes’ powerful sense of confrontation.

There’s fleeting mentions of American police’s relationship with its black youth on intoxicating J Dilla groove ‘Like Me’ (“Every time I move they be sweating me/they want another black man in the penitentiary”) but otherwise ‘B4.DA.$$’ is a record that, despite cribbing from the aesthetic of hyper-political ’90s backpack rap, curiously shies away from its message.

None of which is to say it’s a bad album – just a lightweight one, with alarmingly little to say. Highlights include ‘Curry Chicken’, a homage to Joey’s family’s Caribbean roots and his mother’s cooking that seeps soul from every pore. Producer Statik Selektah retools an old A Tribe Called Quest beat into a searing blitz of dissonant bass and synths on early single ‘No 99’, over which Joey warns pretenders to his NY rap-prince crown that he’s “ready to bust my gun/I’m rushin’ in like Vladimir Putin”. ‘Black Beetles’, meanwhile, sees Bada$$ link up with Chuck Strangers, the Pro Era beatmaker behind some of his best tracks to date: debut mixtape ‘1999’ standouts ‘FromdaTomb$’ and ‘Daily Routine’. Strangers’ breezy production invites some of the record’s best moments of introspection: “This one is for my dogs barking up on the tree/sometimes that wind blows, eventually she gonna leave/that’s mother nature for you”, he ponders with gravelly melancholy. Despite the lack of personality that suffocates this debut, you still sense Bada$$ will be around for a while to come.