The mixtapes and rap artists that tend to gain notoriety on the Internet often seem somewhat … disposable. Something about Kreayshawn or The Based God is very of the moment. That is, I doubt that, five years down the line, we’ll be listening to “Gucci Gucci” with nothing more than the ironic glee that attracted us to the track in the first place. Even artists that seem above the fray — Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Das Racist and, hells yes I’m including her, Kitty Pryde — subvert the expectations we normally reserve for “serious rappers”; trash culture references, ridiculously understated brags (Das Racist’s Heems is “known to rock the flyest shit and eat the best pizza”) and tongue-in-cheek sample selection, from Billy Joel to Carly Rae Jepsen, replace the socially conscious, struggle-obsessed rap that was huge in the 1990s.
Joey Bad@$$’s 1999 mixtape evokes the latter style not only nominally, but sonically and lyrically as well. Since Bada$$ is a member of the teenaged Pro Era collective, the lazy comparison would be troublemakers Odd Future, but he has a lot more in common with elder statesmen like Nas, Common and, especially, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s work on the Blackstar record. Whereas his contemporaries opt for kitsch, Bad@$$ chooses jazzy chords, haunting vocal samples and blown-out boombox beats, all presented in a clear-cut production that values lyrical precision over sing-along hooks.
Furthermore, 1999 succeeds because Joey presents himself as a multi-dimensional, multifaceted human being. On “Waves,” he compares his humble origins with his ambitions to be a mogul, hang with Jay-Z and give his mom a Range Rover. “World Domination” spotlights the streetwise emcee in action, deftly spitting out lines about his potential (referencing both Nas’ Illmatic and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint) over a ragtime beat and, for all the ’90s kids out there, a pitch-shifted “Pinky and the Brain” sample. “Pennyroyal” is particularly intriguing; Joey is clearly hurt by a girl who has left him, but hides his emotions because he has to project the “player” image that rappers need to maintain. Instead, he aims to “make the song cry” for him, illustrating his use of music to express these complex emotions he has suppressed elsewhere.
The highlights of 1999 — and, perhaps, this entire year of hip-hop — are “Survival Tactics” and “Hard Knocks.” “Survival Tactics” has Joey Bad@$$ shooting to kill, condemning street violence, pulling off a capella couplets and finding a worthwhile foil in Capital STEEZ whose laid back, reference-heavy flow (Marty McFly, Pokemon, Chaka Khan and card game booster packs all make appearances) contrasts perfectly with Bad@$$’s straightforward, go-for-the-jugular delivery. It’s a veritable tour de force, all gunshot samples and unchecked bravado. “Hardknock” is an updated version of Blackstar’s “Respiration,” a melancholy overview of how the violence, poverty and drug-use that have become realities for many will eventually prevent many young people from accomplishing simple goals like having a wife and kids.
1999 paints a very complete portrait of a young man who has unlimited potential; Joey Bad@$$ already sounds wise beyond his years, an old soul in a young body. His accomplices in the Pro Era crew — especially Capital STEEZ and CJ Fly — show that he even attracts top talent to collaborate with him, which, in today’s feature-happy rap scene, is a definite measuring stick for someone’s staying power. While I could have written this review solely by quoting the 10 best couplets on the mixtape, I didn’t. Instead, I’ll leave you with this: 1999, while not necessarily pushing boundaries or changing the game, shows a kid doing old tricks very, very well, reminding us why we love the genre in the first place.