[Cinematic / Creative Control, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, September 10, 2012
When discussing Brooklyn emcee Joey Bada$$’s debut mixtape, 1999, with a friend of mine, the one thing he really had to say about it was that “1999 is off though. It sounds like 1995.” The comment resonated with me, not only because it’s incredibly true—the jazz-influenced beats and thoughtful lyricism are abundant on 1999, and by that year in hip-hop history, things had begun to shift in the culture where the predominant sound of the genre, which Bada$$ seems to hold in such high regard, began to be left in some grey area known as the “underground” while radio-friendly hip-hop began to embrace more anthemic club-like tendencies—but also because of the fact that the seventeen year-old artist himself came out of the mid-nineties. Even as a product barely of the eighties myself it seems incredible as I listen to 1999that such an assured, comfortable voice and lyricist could belong to someone so young—a child, really—I am just now coming to terms with the fact that any time I watch a collegiate sporting event, I am older than every single participant. I guess the surprise should wear off soon, along with it the questions that come with growing older like, “Well, I’m twenty-five and where is my dope mixtape?” as I listen to 1999 and exclamations of “That could have been me out there!” as I watch kids who,really, I could have never been play a sport that, really, I never wanted to play anyway.
As the somewhat unofficial leader of the Progressive Era, a crew of artists, producers, photographers and graphic designers out of Brooklyn, Joey Bada$$ is doing more with 1999 than just throwing his name in the ring as the next big thing. He is effectively representing his borough and the state of youth in hip-hop culture at a time when the youth of America needs a voice like his; Bada$$ delivers positive messages with a type of candor that is incredibly refreshing, especially considering that the Progressive Era could just as easily be dismissed as yet another up-and-coming hip-hop collective in a time when we might just have too many up-and-coming hip-hop collectives at this point. Of course, this is just one mixtape, the group’s first, so I’ll hold off on making the obligatory claims that the Progressive Era is here to save hip-hop from the violent culture that seems to be in the forefront, but 1999 is a big step in bringing the “underground” back to street level.
Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, Joey Bada$$ and the Progressive Era will probably remain obscure, as major labels seem to have their way of taking forward-thinking hip-hop artists and forcing hook-laden ideals upon their music, and there hardly hooks to speak of on 1999. He eschews the seemingly perpetual jockeying for a hit single that plagues many hip-hop artists, never sacrificing his art nor his message throughout his songs, which in and of itself makes 1999 a hit. The beat selection for 1999 shines almost as much as the abundantly stunning flows; Bada$$ colors the mixtape with hazy, summer afternoon drive beats from some of his favorite producers, and the Progressive Era originals fill in the blanks in a way that makes the whole of 1999 feel cohesive. In the place of manufactured hooks and dancefloor-ready beats, Bada$$ achieves the same level of catchiness with honesty and classic production. On “Waves,” over a jazzy Freddie Joachim beat, Bada$$ quips about the perilous state of the hip-hop radio world in which he is entering, saying, “Like I told you, I know niggas trash rappin’ / Worried about the trending fashions rather than descending passion.”
The young emcee isn’t just telling people what they want to hear, either. Across the span of the fifteen-track, hour-plus mixtape, he delivers potently rich rhymes that speak truthfully about who he is, where is coming from, and where an artist like him fits into the scheme of today’s hip-hop culture. From the second that the first organ notes drip from above to start the tape with “Summer Knights,” like water droplets from the tip of an icicle melting in the sun, it is evident that we are going to be experiencing a fresh take on classic hip-hop. Bada$$ touches on a myriad of subjects, and eloquently—amazingly so. “Waves” and “FromdaTomb$” cover the young dreamer’s aspirations in the hip-hop game, approached with an innocence yet understanding of the world in which he enters, on the former telling the listener, “They told me not to sound so complex / Dumb it down to accomplish articles in Complex.” Though he approaches each rhyme with a playful means, one of the most prevalent themes on 1999 is the youth culture gone wrong, the fact that he and his crew are trying to carve their way into the game without glorifying the violence that seems to be plaguing kids their age.
Bada$$ has a lot of help from his fellow Progressive Era mates on a suite of songs, importantly placed directly in the middle of the mixtape, a string of songs in “Survival Tactics,” “Killuminati” and “Hardknock” that address the violent culture that seems to perpetually surround urban area kids their age. For “Survival Tactics,” Bada$$ and Capital STEEZ ruthlessly rip through a boom-bap throwback beat produced by Vin Skully, even sarcastically assuming the roles of glorification of that lifestyle, while simultaneously tearing those ideals down. It’s a ferocious, yet touching track in a sense that the two emcees dazzle at high speeds and high proficiency while speaking to a real issue and never falling on the wrong side of the line they seem to be dancing between playful ridicule and outright condemnation. Capital STEEZ solidifies himself as an emcee to watch out for in his own right, with rapid-fire spitting of lines like, “Fuck what I once said, I want bloodshed / ‘Cause now-a-days for respect, you’ve got to pump lead.” Each member of the Progressive Era on display throughout 1999 is on top of their game, in fact. The entire project feels like a collaborative coming out party for the crew, and judging from the prowess with which the mixtape is delivered, they won’t be going anywhere but up.
“Suspect” is the amalgamation of that concept, the whole of Pro Era bringing the mixtape to a close with a twelve-minute lyrical exploration, each member basking in the spotlight for a time, displaying the dynamics of each particular flow. The mixtape that has unfolded in the fifty minutes prior to “Suspect” is a statement, whether delivered by Bada$$ alone or with various portions of his supporting cast, 1999 is Pro Era’s declaration of war on hip-hop. They are challenging the seemingly lost criterion in the culture of the genre, and to do so at such a young age—not to mention fluently and convincingly—is a feat. The reminders that these are a bunch of kids are few and far between; realistically the voice of Bada$$ is among the most mature and respectable in the game today, even with the lack of “shine to last the whole night.” It’s just a matter of time until Bada$$ will have enough shine to last a lifetime.