Joey Badass 'All-Amerikkkan Badass' Review: A dark, urgent effort to revitalize NYC rap

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images
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Hip-hop and politics have always gone together like broccoli and cheese — they amplify and complete one another. New York City rapper Joey Badass has long understood that, and the light sociopolitical critique has given a little more golden sheen  to his catalog. 

Each of his projects has been a little more incisive than the last — with Joey sneaking some shots at the White House on 1999's jazzy, stand-out "Righteous Minds" and testing out the protester role in his 2014 "No. 99" video. Now, for his second full-length studio LP, Joey is going full political revolutionary, determined to bring some substance back to hip-hop.

"It's like hella vegetables," Joey told Wild 94.1 in October. "It's hella good for you, and it's almost my hesitance with it: the fact that it's so good for you, because these kids these days want candy."

The candy shop assertion is arguable, considering Kendrick Lamar has one of the most highly-anticipated albums coming April 14 and Chance the Rapper nearly swept the hip-hop categories at the Grammys in February. But there will always be heads looking for more. All-Amerikkkan Badass will satisfy that hunger. Its lyrics offer frenzied explorations of the post-Obama world, paired with updated takes on NYC boom bap. It makes for one of the most propulsive albums Joey Badass has ever released — one that demands you listen top to bottom, rather than cherry-pick the better golden age beats and move on with the day.

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The shift toward a more "candy" hip-hop has happened to come with a shift away from New York City being the hip-hop capital of the world. The Atlanta sound of Migos, Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Mike Will Made-It and Metro Boomin has eclipsed the grimy boom-bap breaks and jazz loops of NYC hip-hop — but Joey's music has remained. It's where he's found success before and perhaps will until the day he retires or goes full music mogul. 

The confrontational "Ring the Alarm" taps Meechy Darko of the Flatbush Zombies, Nyck Caution and frequent collaborator Kirk Knight to boast about the "resurrection of real." Similarly "Legendary," the highly anticipated track with fellow hip-hop purist J. Cole, conjures old school New York images of collaborators huddled while spitting hastily written verses over a boombox. "Super Predator" with Styles P comes with a slick Statik Selektah beat, riddled with record cuts. An echoey saxophone swells and phases like it's being played in a subway, effectively using Bill Clinton's instrument of choice to soundtrack a sneering rap tearing apart Hillary's controversial black youth epithet of choice.

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Most tracks spin out Joey Badass' impressions of life in Amerikkka, a "Three K's, two A's" spelling that underscores the institutional racism Joey sees at all levels of American society.

"Media's got this whole thing tainted, that's all fact/ Feedin' you lies like this whole thing wasn't built on our backs," Joey spits on "Amerikkkan Idol." In the album's keystone verse, spit a cappella, he details his vision of a civil war the government is attempting to start between black and white people.

What the government is doin' amongst our people is downright evil
Disturbin', but not surprisin', that's for certain
With all of the conflict of propaganda, I believe they are simply tryna slander
Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike
They are simply pushin' us to our limit so that we can all get together and get with it
They want us to rebel, so that it makes easier for them to kill us and put us in jails

He warns his listeners to be cautious. Joey's lyrics are pleading, searching, often self-critical or at least reassuring himself of his own direction: "Can't you see it's a trap? The type of shit I think 'bout" he spits on "Legendary." "I sensed they needed my help, that's why I had to reach out." He goes deep, and stays thought-provoking in the truest sense of the word, constantly trying to spark his listener to action. He stacks condemnation on condemnation until the listener can climb and take in the breadth of Joey's vision of impending doom.

Despite using his name in several places throughout the album, Joey has been clear that this is not an anti-Donald Trump album; it's meant to spark political engagement. 

"My whole new album is pretty much, me over these last couple of years, these things happening to young black men like me and me as an artist feeling so responsible and me not knowing what to do about it," Joey explained in a Genius annotation on "Land of the Free." "So this new album is basically what I've done about it. This is me speaking how it is, what I want to say and how I feel."

It's a personal journey meant to "inspire action in your first child," as Joey raps on the hook in "Land of the Free." "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves" — a line very near to Kendrick Lamar's controversial Trayvon Martin lyric from "Blacker the Berry." On the whole though, Joey aims far more shots at the system, detailing the myriad ways it has worked to break black culture — and the suffering that's caused.

It will enrage, it will inspire, the smooth breaks will keep heads nodding — precisely the three things NYC hip-hop has always sought to do from the birth of the game.

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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