What happens when you die?
Nobody knows. Not even this kid. I have no idea what happens after this life, but to me, one of the worst theories to imagine is purgatory. When I die, I want to know right away where I'm going to end up. Sitting in a waiting room for an eternity, not knowing whether I will get to party it up with Jesus and Tupac or have to hear Tyga on loop all day, every day, would drive me absolutely crazy. I can't imagine what it would be like....
...until I compare it to the rap game.
The truly great, divine emcees - the Kendricks, Kanyes and Jays of the world - enter the pearly gates without hesitation. Their reward is a lifetime of riches and adoration from rap heads. Others (who you can find here) are resigned to a life of burns and bruises sparked by tweets, snark, and general disrespect from a brutally passionate group of music fiends. Some, however, are stuck in the middle. It's not that they are bad, often quite the contrary, but in the age where music is thrown at you constantly, it can be hard to develop deep, meaningful relationships with every single artist. In the short time you have someone's ear before they move onto the next thing, you have to grab them, and, for better or for worse make them remember. Those who can't, who instead inspire only ambivalence, get stuck in purgatory.
Joey Bada$$ is in emcee purgatory.
It's safe to say, B4.DA.$$, is (I guess was now) highly anticipated. Just not by me. By no means do I hate Joey, I think he's a good artist and I wish him all the best, but he's never particularly moved me one way or another; I never seek his music out. When I do hear him it usually because of someone else on the song ("Birds Eye View" and "1 Train" come to mind). I'm not a fan, but I'm not not one. I don't want to send him to rapper hell, because he's better than every single one of those rappers, but in order to open up the pearly gates, I'll need something very convincing from him. This is technically only his debut album (although it feels like he's been around for much longer), so it was my my hope that B4.DA.$$ would push me in one direction or the other.
With both excitement and trepidation I pressed play and waited for the deciding moment....and waited...and waited some more. Before I knew It, I had waited 62 minutes, more if you count the repeat listens, and I still hadn't felt that hip-hop epiphany from the rap heavens.
That doesn't mean the album is bad, far from it. Joey is a quality rapper who makes quality hip-hop. For those who consider the '90s the Golden Age of hip-hop, Joey will be a breath of fresh 90's air. With a growling flow, a few punching one-liners, some sample-heavy beats and an aura of grungy, filth-covered hip-hop, Joey really succeeds in capturing that throwback sound. It's hard to believe he is only 20-years-old, because with the way B4.DA.$$ is constructed, it sounds like he was 20 in '94. I get it. As a rap nerd, I love but am not obsessed with the 90's. Being a fan of Mobb Deep, Fugees, Nas, Premo, and about a zillion others, I can appreciate this album. Songs like "Hazeus View" have that mixture of bounce and grit. "Big Dusty" is best heard rocking a Knicks Starter Jacket and a dirty pair of Tims. "Belly Of The Beat" sounds like a dank, dreary Brooklyn alleyway. Joey makes Golden Age hip-hop and does it well. While I could appreciate it and for the most part liked it, it just wasn't really impacting me. I would listen, nod my head, and dig the vibe, but when the song was done, I couldn't tell you one line or one thing about it that really jumped out at me, good or bad. How could I believe he's good at what he does and enjoy the album while still not being the least bit satisfied? How could I like it and not like it at the same time?
I think my confusion stems from Joey's lack of risks and thus, a lack of a unique experience. I have heard 90's hip-hop a million times, because it's just so damn good, but the only problem is I have heard it a million times. For me, I need something new, something unique, something that makes me stop whatever I am doing and really listen. I need that "parking lot" moment where you wait at your destination until the song is done. I need the moment that makes me cry. Those awe-inspiring moments are what make a great album great, but sadly, there was not a single moment that shocked me on B4.DA.$$. He's consistent to a fault; each song sounds similar and you end up listening to the album without really listening. There were times when I "looked up" for a second, came back, and had no idea where I was because it's all sonicly so similar. Joey is pure hip-hop, but there is a hip-hop spirit that's missing. Hip-hop is about loops and lyrics, sure, but it's also about pushing boundaries, testing limits, and moving into uncharted territory without reservation and it's that adventurer's spirit which Joey fails to show, ultimately making B4.DA.$$ fall short of what it could be.
It wasn't until the last track on the album, the bonus track "Teach Me," where Joey begins to show something different. Instead of a scratched Statik Selektah beat (which, again, I love), Joey opts to spit over a vibrant, intoxicating, instrument-driven beat from ASTR and Chuck Strangers. The snare, the chimes, the horns; this one would jump the fuck off live. Paced by some instrumental sections, a simple yet effective hook from Kiesza, and that unique mini-sample of the party towards the end, this song has some serious progression; it might lean more towards poppy and catchy, but don't mistake that for a lack of musicality. It's the most impressive song on the album because it's the most unexpected. I certainly wasn't expecting it, especially after 16 tracks that sounded uncomfortably similar, and I got that excitement I was looking for. Unfortunately, it was too late. If that "Teach Me" moment happened more often and earlier I might be rapping a different tune, but as is I'm left with an incomplete feeling.
This is a good album by all accounts, but it's just not enough to free Joey from rap purgatory. You have to be great to get hip-hop heaven to open up and Joey isn't great...yet. He's only twenty, and this is only his debut. We have a lifetime in purgatory, so let's see where Joey can take this. He has all the tools necessary to work his way to the top, but it will take some growth (and some risks) to get there. He has all the "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw" he needs, but putting them together will be his true test.
I'll be waiting at the pearly gates when he's ready.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. He always orders guac at Chipotle even though it's extra. You can find him on Twitter @LucasDJBooth.]