Joey Badass loses a step on '2000'

The summer-ready production slaps, but the songwriting is restrictive and rigid.

Culture

About five years ago — it was the day the U.S. government launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria; I remember this because someone eating a steak salad in a rented loft space showed me the video on his phone and said “Bro… crazy” — I followed Joey Badass around New York as he prepared for the release of his second studio album, All-Amerikkkan Badass. Joey was at that point a tidy five years removed from 1999, the debut mixtape that instantly made internet curios of him and his friends, the collective Pro Era, with Joey earmarked for breakout stardom of a certain kind. 1999 was a triumph of competency, if not inspiration. The styles from which it pulled — D.I.T.C.’s slightly agitated true-schoolism, Nas as he settled into adulthood, flat affect-era Doom — make it easy for an artist in his formative stages to sound professional, but hard for him to stand out. At his best, Joey did, but just barely.

When a record like 1999 makes a teenaged rapper famous, those predisposed to talk about hip-hop as if it’s a conquerable thing a fan or critic can wrap his or her arms around — especially those who also wring their hands about the state of hip-hop in New York — wonder whether it’s going to tilt the genre on its axis, whether wordier, more reverent styles will blot out [snap music/crunk/early Drake/drill/Future/later Drake] on the radio and charts. But it never does; it never did. What’s odd about Joey Badass’ trajectory, then, is that he continued to grow bigger and bigger, without bending to pop trends of the moment — but also without doubling down on 1999’s revival instincts.

All-Amerikkkan Badass delivers on its name: The artist sticks doggedly to the notion of “political” rap and ropes in guests eager to do the same. But it has little of the jaggedness that those three KKKs would suggest, or that is usually borne out when his early influences rapped expressly about the government. It spawned two sizable hits and several other songs that would go on to rack up tens of millions of plays. These are uniformly soft — not in a moral or masculine sense, but in that they’re gently textured, unshowily melodic, pleasant yet not particularly memorable. At this same time, Joey — strikingly handsome, with a model’s build and a fine arts academy pedigree — was earning rave reviews for his guest turn on the dystopian TV drama Mr. Robot. This led to a recurring role in BET’s series-length Boomerang remake, but not much else beyond a handful of cameo appearances as himself; All-Amerikkkan did not flop, did not end up a blockbuster, and none of its provocations stuck or stylistic tics filtered down to younger rappers forging their own sounds. Joey Badass was finally famous, but ambiently so.

And then: another five-year gap. Joey’s first album since 2017 is called 2000; to its credit, it does not try to recreate the palette that he had borrowed and retrofitted on 1999. In fact, the production here — airy mixes full of jazz, breathy vocal samples, everything in major keys — is the album’s strongest point, leaning heavily from the Boston-bred veteran Statik Selektah. It’s well-timed for summer: many of 2000’s songs sound so humid you can practically hear the sweat dripping off of them. At the beginning of the closing song, “Written in the Stars,” Diddy, who shows up to bookend the album with some truly cut-rate shit talking, reminds Joey that for a rapper to be great, he or she has to be able to spit over live instruments.

There is perhaps too much of that energy on 2000’s tweer tracks, but on the whole, this slightly improvisatory bent to even the programmed drums is a welcome counterweight to Joey’s typically rigid verses. While he has become an inarguably professional songwriter—his verses have discernible shapes to them — the line-by-line writing is, at 2000’s frequent worst, so rote and anonymized as to exasperate a listener inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s to be expected in his painfully dry sex raps (from “Show Me”: “Put the lust aside, there's some things we gotta discuss/So close your legs for a bit, baby, let's open up”), but this relentless drive toward the most obvious version of each idea puts a ceiling on how specific, and therefore how magnetic, Joey might be on a given song. Take passages like this one, from “Wanna Be Loved,” a song whose unhurried Chuck Strangers beat begs for a muscular verse to ground it:

I give it all I got and to the best of my ability

I take it day by day with grace and that humility

'Cause I done lived in way too much hostility

Those sentiments, in that order, are the subject of plenty fascinating rap songs—including some written by Joey. But as a finished lyric, they might as well be placeholders sent out from a songwriting camp to a clot of waiting pop stars. The same could be said of the aptly titled “Cruise Control” (“Motivated to reach my goals/Trust me, I ain't worried”).

There are moments early on 2000 when Joey lapses, as he does every so often throughout his catalog, into the same Jamaican lilt that Biggie deployed so deftly. Each glimpse of life behind the monotone makes Joey not only a more intriguing vocalist, but a more compelling, evidently complex figure; each excessively plotted Spotify play bleeds some of that intrigue away. Even when Joey overreaches—like on opener “The Baddest” when he raps, over creeping keys, “Who the best emcees? Kenny, Joey and Cole”—he reveals something about his creative sensibility.

If there’s poetry to be found here, it’s that the ever-so-brief period that the titles 1999 and 2000 would seem to bracket. Of course, a full decade has elapsed between the two records; he became a father and saw all his material dreams come to pass, though was forced to do so without his close friend and collaborator, Capital Steez, who died by suicide in 2012. The song here dedicated to Steez, “Survivors Guilt,” is undeniably affecting, not least because it cites a rift between Joey and the family of his late friend. (The song before “Survivors Guilt,” “Head High,” which sounds at first to be about Steez, reveals itself to be a eulogy for XXXTentacion, with whom Joey worked extensively before his 2018 murder in Miami.) It’s become something of a cliche in rap circles to say that Joey’s music is about elusiveness of time—it is, rather, about the comfort that comes with looking solely backward. So how painful it is when you’re far enough from shore that even your vividest memories are of the abyss.