Joey Bada$$’s 1999, released earlier this year, was a critically divisive mixtape. In the end, whether you enjoyed the album or not had little to do with Joey himself, but more to do with your personal convictions about hip-hop and the retro aesthetic. Supporters raise the roof for any rapper who makes above average music with the ‘90s aesthetic that they have not stopped enjoying, twelve years later.
To many, the Pro Era crew just realize what the best music sounds like, and make it that way as a result. Naysayers see a lack of a creative or open-mind in this philosophy, especially when the artists don’t match the quality of the many, many LPs we could pull out for the purposes of reminiscing. As my language and the review I wrote of 1999 this summer reveals, I would tend to side with the latter. Neither side, however, is really capable of properly evaluating 1999 against the heavy factional bias on either side.
The good thing about Capital STEEZ’s unfortunately titled AmeriKKKan Korruption Reloaded is that it makes this argument partially irrelevant. Released in its half-born state last winter, the tape was evidence of larger musical scope on the part of the crew before Joey Bada$$’s tape even came out. For one thing, its production far surpasses the ‘90s pandering of 1999, with both adventurously sampled original beats and less obvious pulls from MF DOOM or DJ Premier. The sounds are based squarely in the boom bap and underground traditions, but STEEZ manages to crystallize his influences into an impressively singular sound. Its a mix of that familiar cloudy nostalgia and a curious nihilism that pulls as much from g-funk as Odd Future. It’s a conscious move on the artist’s part, clearly evidenced by the East-West crossover legend that inspires its title.
Much more importantly, however, the production choices also show a different attitude. The new beats look more for energy than any period-associative mood, leading to a record that calls much less attention to its influences and more attention to its listenability. It hasn’t necessarily dipped more than a toe in the new millenium, but to some extent that no longer matters.
Joey Bada$$ himself shows much more promise as a producer than was expected given the production choices of his debut. “Dead Prez” combines a Queensbridge-style piano loop with atonal G-funk synths and an absolutely brutal percussion loop. Has this dude been listening to Joy Division or something? His third track injects what sounds like the credit sequence from an early 90’s educational VHS tape with a palpable energy that increases as the track progresses. Both tracks are as adventurous as they are slight. I might go so far as to say that Joey is a much better producer than he is a rapper.
STEEZ, on the other hand, is a much better rapper than Joey, saying more interesting things in more entertaining ways, with much less of an air of self-importance. The guy provides a relatively rare sense of fun to much of his delivery. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make him any more distinctive than Joey. In fact, he still falls into the same lyrical pitfalls that plague 1999: the crippling lyrical influence of the 1990’s and a focus on skills over entertainment. This leads to a lot of references to New York greats and a lot of fumfering hooks that seem to go on for minutes.
While I’m glad to see this crew revive the “lost” art of rap storytelling, many of their stories end up just being about themselves, the same complaints about newfound fame and money that already choke the industry’s on-ramps. What seems to be lost on STEEZ is the idea that storytelling mostly exists in order to transport the listener to a specific situation that can’t necessarily be as easily paralleled with rap cliches as the normal off-the-dome style fare, exciting the listener because they aren’t bragging or free association.
In the end, these lyrical hindrances hold down an excitingly solid set of new sounds. Let’s hope that the reissue of this tape is evidence of the crew’s evolving tastes, rather than early experimentation. If so, we might even be able to see this as a step in the right direction.