The brilliance of ‘90s rap doesn’t go unnoticed simply because we’ve crossed the threshold of the new millennium.
The brilliance of ‘90s rap doesn’t go unnoticed simply because we’ve crossed the threshold of the new millennium. In countless black barbershops across the country, old heads (and aged spirits in young bodies) battle over the merits of boom bap as “real rap” against its more outwardly material, overproduced iteration in the early ‘00s. Maybe Joey Bada$$ was always on the side of the ‘90s representing the Golden Age of rap but his position on that spectrum amplified mightily with the direction of his debut mixtape, 1999. I say direction here because it’s evident that, while Joey might appreciate the boom bap style and the linguistics of the era, 1999 is equal parts raw and intentional. Paying particular attention to themes as frivolous as rap supremacy, as weighted as street violence, at the age of 17, Joey cast himself as both watchful observer and wizened youth. With his whole Progressive Era (Pro Era) crew alongside him, 1999 is a cracking, creaking record mediated by Joey’s youthful energy. It’s an unassailable debut, full of complexity and guile.
Joey Bada$$ is the quintessential youth with an old school mentality. Quite often, his tracks open as a conjuring. Joey and the Era invite us as an audience to their crew space. It’s the same kind of introspective summoning that Marvin Gaye employed on his critical masterpiece “What’s Goin’ On.” It’s the same implication used by the inimitable Sun Ra who would appear in clandestine black spaces, only to lead them to a rocket ship blasting off towards their black planet of origin. 1999’s opening track mimics this sort of conjuring, as the audience is dropped in mid-conversation on “Summer Knights.” Joey, recognizing our arrival, tells Pat to “keep it running” so he can introduce himself. Playing off his youthful presence, Joey makes the audience privy right off the bat: “He a child but they treat him like a bigger man / Cause when the pen is in hand they big him up like Jigga man.” He makes note of the powerful engines of sound, propelling him forward in time. Joey’s raspy voice hadn’t made the aggressive leap that would come with his later albums, Summer Knights and B4. Da.$$. Rather 1999 is Joey at his most fluidly, freestyle flow, something Pro Era was known for.
The beauty of 1999 relies on Joey’s wont to rip instrumentals from the likes of MF Doom and Dilla and weld them alongside the sonics of the in-house production team. Chuck Strangers’ snare and high hat ring rustic, but the drum fills effortlessly cascade into Joey’s flow. He even puts on the black hat (made famous by MF Doom) on “FromdaTomb” when he spits, “Young villain hop up on the track then the track doomed / Click-clack-boom resurrect boom bap from the tombs.” He’s on the warpath to bury your favorite emcee and his skills are proven noteworthy as he gives space for features from Pro Era crew members like Kirk Knight, Chuck Strangers, T Nah Apex and CJ Fly only to swipe the song’s best verse right from their clutches. The only member of Pro Era who matches his complexity and poetics is the late Capital Steez whose verse on “Survival Tactics” cuts and weaves rap styles that range from the plodding boom bap–“Everybody claim they use to rap / But these ain’t even punch lines no more, I’m abusing tracks“–to the stop-gap flow that made Big Sean and Nicki Minaj famous — “I had a hard time writing raps / Now I’m way over heads, science fiction.” If 1999 was nothing more than a time capsule for Steez’s ridiculous lyrical capabilities, it would already be well worth the selling price.
With the relentless changes impacting the hip-hop game year after year, it’s telling that a mixtape glorifying a 30-year-old sound resonates with our current moment in time. This is because the street-level affairs Joey narrates are still very much relevant to today’s sociopolitical atmosphere. Joey sources his angst back to the impermanence of street life. On “Hardknock” Joey laments street violence, which can often pop off with something as small as a glancing look: “So don’t eye ’em they get the wrong message, wrong method / Put you in that long stretcher.
Later, while Joey’s voice reaches a higher register on “Daily Routine” where he raps on dodging bullets in the time between his first tape and the inevitable rise of Pro Era. It doesn’t matter who you are, “They launching out strays, I’m trying not to get sprayed / Whether a spitter or a quitter behind the trigger approaching his prey.” He juxtaposes this very real fear with the concerns of the blogosphere and determines that the daily struggles of the latter just don’t compare: “They don’t feel the name but they say the music dope though / Fuck it, that’s how it’s supposed to go, these bloggers too emotional.” Joey again occupies that space well above the fray, a place that takes most upstarts years to ascend to.
In some ways, 1999 was both behind and ahead of its time. Owing to the heavy sampling of the old boom bappers and Joey signaling a resurgence of rap’s lyricism, the record is a crucial entry point for those trying to figure out when the materialism informing rap might’ve grown cold for some audiences. But the record is also an introduction to Pro Era’s cafeteria cipher-like aesthetic. The posse cut “Suspect” is a fun bounce from one perspective to the next. There are nearly 12 minutes of baton passing before Joey himself finishes the last leg of the race with indelible presence. Pro Era is still alive and kicking, despite a few members amicably splitting. The cipher still continues. But 1999 was the first downbeat, the first moment in which we came to respect the old school freedom of just rapping. And in that lingual space of uninhibited liberty, the old spirit found Joey Bada$$ to be a new host, a new harbinger.