The blueprint is a notorious hip-hop cliché, but when it comes to ‘90s New York it’s an incredibly useful one. For hundreds of artists who’ve made their attempt at rap success during the past twelve years, albums like Illmatic, The Infamous, and The Low End Theory serve as a starting point. Many artists have watched their commercial and creative careers flatten under their monstrous influence. Successful rappers and beatmakers mostly progress past their icons, but it’s always possible to trace a path back to one of these obelisks of rap wisdom, often on a song by song, line by line basis.
I mention the three monumental albums above specifically because the path between seventeen-year-old Brooklyner Joey Bada$$’s new mixtape and these albums is surprisingly short. Q-Tip, Prodigy, and Nas above all cast long shadows over 1999. A listen to the tape is a disorienting trip through your own rap memory. At any moment you can hear a slight variation of Nas’ shoutouts at the end of “The World is Yours”, a few bars of rapping in the cadence of the chorus on “Survival of the Fittest”, or a hazy breakdown in the vein of the interludes on “Excursions”. Joey rarely uses a rhyme, cadence, or bar that doesn’t have a companion spoken by a New York legend. He’s an impressive student of hip-hop for sure, but it’s some of the most derivative rapping I’ve come across in a long time. His nostalgic voice is certainly refreshing, but it’s merely a result of the tapes release date, not because it is at all new.
What’s worse is that his verses can often be a surprisingly shallow rendition of hazy ‘90s boom-bap. Joey Bada$$’s flow lacks the pointed lyrical force of any of the above Queens MCs. 1999 shows little of Q-Tip’s jubilance, Prodigy’s cold pain, or Nas’s wide, observational vision. The tape’s lyrical content is the one thing that places it squarely in 2012. Many of Joey’s lines consist of less-than-convincing sincerity, stream-of-consciousness braggadocio, and creepy sexploitation. There’s a Max B shoutout, a Lil B diss, and Complex name-drop. The track “Funky Ho’$” sounds like a vivid “Represent”-style cut until you realize that Joey has replaced Nas’ sharp truths with boasts about the various unexpected places he’s deflowered women without becoming a father. Nas talks about himself to give perspective to description. Joey does it seemingly as an end of its own. He is Drake at his least appealing with a Queensbridge vocabulary.
This is not to say that the music isn’t enjoyable. A pleasant ‘90s sound is hard to hate and 1999’s is formed by legends and inspired beatmakers. Production is this mixtape’s most consistent joy, forging some nice, minor variations in the DJ Premier mold. While the Lord Finesse beat is an interesting but ultimately silly Steve Miller band sample, MF Doom’s “World Domination” is a piano looped fireball of playtime fun in the vein of Jurassic Five’s “Concert Schoolyard” and Scarface’s “My Block”. Solid, subtle production allows the tape to maintain a rare cohesion by today’s standards.
Joey Bada$$ is doubtless a talented rapper as well, but he aims high, often favoring complexity over coherence and rupturing many a tracks’ smooth surfaces. He always begins songs strongly in focus with tight, deliberate rhymes. More than a few of tracks, however, devolve into mumbled mazes of overabundant syllables and internal rhyme by their endings.
1999 is best when Joey is yoked closest to his influences, shirking modern clichés for those of the ‘90s. The most crafted tracks like “Righteous Minds” and “Hardknock” come nearest, capturing some of the bittersweet haze and touching details of their precedents, often as a result of his rare, but relatively meticulous storytelling. Even so, if inspiring memories of ‘90s greats is all that his music can successfully accomplish, inevitable comparisons to the blueprints will indelibly label these new tracks as inferior. A seventeen-year-old who can rap with ease in a nearly twenty-year-old style should be valuable to us in 2012. Let’s hope that time will allow him to age past his idols.