Joey Bada$$ rose to prominence last year with his debut mixtape ‘1999’, overnight a 17 year old kid from Brooklyn became the saviour of east coast hip hop. Since then we’ve seen the birth of the Beast Coast movement, with the A$AP Mob, Flatbush Zombies, The Underachievers and Joey’s own crew Pro Era at the forefront of the scene, but with a sharp rise to fame and personal trauma to deal with, how can Joey’s next mixtape ‘Summer Knights’ possibly live up to the expectation? For Louder Than War Ryan Gumbley checks it out.
Bada$$ has always worn his influences on his sleeve, this has been used by some as a stick to beat him with, his music undeniably takes influence from 90s hip hop production and boom-bap in particular; the impression made on him by the likes of DJ Premier (who even produces on this tape), Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and Pete Rock can be heard all over the songs. As a consequence Joey can be a divisive figure; for every person hailing him as the saviour of hip hop, there is another who claims that hip hop didn’t need saving in the first place and, if anything, he’s dragging hip hop back a couple of decades.
It’s unfair to write him off based on the fact that some of his beats sound like they were made in the 90s though; what really stood out from ‘1999’ was his lyrics and his rhymes, for an artist of his age they were not only impressive but surprisingly mature and that doesn’t change on ‘Summer Knights’. Yes, there is talk of girls and weed which is to be expected but whereas some MCs will go no further than these subjects, Joey mixes it up with more complexity and introspection (We’ll ignore the Pokémon reference in ‘Alowha’).
One recurring lyrical theme throughout the mixtape is the sad passing of Pro Era member Capital Steez, who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances and rumours of mental health problems on Christmas Eve last year, hours after tweeting ‘The End’. Joey dedicates the mixtape to Capital Steez in the introduction and goes on to give a nod to him on the trip hop inspired ‘Sit N’ Prey’. But it’s on the heart-achingly endearing, mixtape highlight, ‘#LongLiveSteelo’ where Steez is properly paid homage to, without giving away a great deal of detail Joey manages to reveal the love he had for Steez and the pain his passing brought, ‘You used to tell me read books, n****s bookin’ me now/ But how could I have done it without you though?/ You was the big bro I never ever had, you know?’.
Another of the tapes best tracks is the Lee Bannon produced ’95 Til’ Infinity’ which sees Joey aggressively rapping (to the point of almost shouting) over a smooth, incredibly soulful beat, it’s a song which truly signals the progression that has been made between ‘1999’ and ‘Summer Knights’. The role of women in his lyrics has also progressed since last time round, the piano driven ‘Right On Time’ sees Joey opening up about the ups and downs of what sounds like a very real relationship, a refreshing change in a genre where many artists are known for simply objectifying women through their lyrics.
The tape isn’t perfect, there are one or two songs which feel distinctly average and probably wouldn’t be missed, but this is a mixtape. A mixtape which documents a turbulent year in which he has been forced to grow up quickly, and whether it’s in spite of or because of the problems he’s faced; Joey has emerged out of the other end as a better MC. By the time his full length debut arrives next year, the hip hop world will understandably be expecting even greater things still; but this time expectations have been met.
It’s his ability to switch between high octane aggression and raw vulnerability without losing the power in his delivery or the sharp wit in his lyrics which makes Joey such an exciting prospect in hip hop and this tape a worthy addition to his catalogue. If you’re looking for cutting edge hip hop, ‘Summer Knights’ won’t be for you but if you’re looking for great hip hop, look no further.
All words by Ryan Gumbley. More work by Ryan on Louder Than War can be found here.