Remember that magical feeling, right before good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped, when every hip-hop head knew something big was coming? Kendrick had been quietly killing the game for a minute and his independently-released album Section.80 helped to cement the Top Dawg emcee as one of the elite, preeminent voices of the hip-hop's next generation.
Before he was able to earn his place as the critical darling and fan favorite he is today, though, K.Dot had to grind for years, earn a few clutch co-signs and release a ton of quality records.
Five years later, Joey Bada$$ is about to have a similar moment.
Over the past few months, Joey has followed Kendrick's blueprint in the lead-up to his forthcoming full-length release, A.A.B.A.. Its lead single,“Devastated,” earned him some flack from his longtime core fanbase, but the record did numbers, scoring Joey his first-ever plaque and broadening his audience amongst mainstream listeners (Remember “Swimming Pools”?).
Meanwhile, his verse on fellow Pro Era family member Nyck Caution's “What’s Understood” proved Joey could hop on a beat by one of the trendiest producers in the game (Metro Boomin) and stay true to his roots (Remember “Fuckin' Problems”?).
If smart marketing alone was enough to land an emcee in top 5 discussions, though, even Young Thug would be in contention for the GOAT crown. Alongside all of Joey’s strategic moves, the Flatbush lyricist has continued to put quality first while growing into an elite emcee.
As Exhibit A, I present “Land of the Free,” Joey’s funky, politically-charged new single that dropped on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. While Bada$$ has never shied away from socially relevant lyrics, “Land of the Free” is probably his most poignant and pertinent “message track” to date.
Sonically, the record couldn’t be further removed from “Devastated," but Joey's lyrical approach is as sharp as ever, as evidenced by lines like, “Sometimes I speak and I feel like it ain't my words / Like I'm just a vessel channeling inside this universe / I feel my ancestors arrested inside of me / It's like they want me to shoot my chance and change society.” Like much of Joey’s earlier works, which often drew comparisons to emcees birthed during the "golden era," the foundational hip-hop appeal of “Land of the Free” is undeniable.
Whether you love “Land of the Free” or hate "Devasted," Joey's shotgun approach with a twist is working. Over the past year, Bada$$ has constantly broadened his appeal by releasing material ("Front & Center," "Brooklyn's Own," "Ready") that resonates with an ever-widening fan base, never compromising quality or authenticity along the way. Think “Cartoons & Cereal,” “The Recipe” and “Backseat Freestyle”—three drastically different songs, but all in line with Kendrick's hip-hop core.
Of course, for all of his buzz to translate into the widespread critical acclaim and love from the mainstream masses that would place him in a top 5 discussion, Joey will have to deliver big on his next release. It would be unrealistic to expect A.A.B.A. to match GKMC, a bona fide modern classic, but it doesn’t have to. As long as the Pro Era founder pieces together a project as good or better than his own previous release, 2015's B4.Da.$$, the momentum he gained in 2016 should help him elevate into a whole new tier of recognition, commercially and critically.
I think he can do it. I’ve got faith in the PE Process, and I’m calling it now: by the end of 2017 Joey Bada$$ will be in your top 5.
By Cassidy Kakin. Follow him on Twitter.