Album Review: Joey Bada$$, ‘Summer Knights Mixtape’

Written by Michael Kundrath

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“And it ain’t hard to be famous / What’s hard is sustaining, remaining the same when things changing.”

19 year old Brooklyn native Joey Bada$$ is a major player in a new generation of young emcees coming up in NYC right now. This became strikingly evident with his self-released and tremendously well-received 2012 debut mixtape, 1999. It largely featured Pro Era, the Brooklyn based hip-hop collective he co-founded in 2009 with his like-minded, rap obsessed and absurdly lyrical classmates, while attending Edward R Murrow High School in Flatbush. It stunned the rap world with its Low End Theory meets Illmatic, classic boom-bap, sample heavy, east coast hip-hop style, sound and spirit; something that despite the old-school vibe, felt incredibly fresh.

 

The mixtape quickly earned Bada$$ a ton of respect within the hip-hop community at large, opening a ton of doors for the young rapper. Perhaps, most notably, it led to him becoming a 2013 XXL Freshman and receiving an offer to sign with rap royalty: Jay-Z’s label, Roc Nation. Then, tragically, amidst all the excitement, another founding member of Pro Era by the name of Capital STEEZ, a close friend of Bada$$’, and a rising star in his own right, committed suicide.

Over the summer Bada$$ dropped Summer Knights, his much-anticipated follow-up mixtape, via Cinematic Music Group, and dedicated it to STEEZ. Noticeably more mature and confident as a rapper, Bada$$ has evolved since 1999. He appears to be avoiding the mainstream rap route. but is currently knee deep in some well-established rap territory. Originally intended to be an EP, the mixtape was ultimately turned into an hour-plus, 17 song deep, full-length effort of mostly very impressive, hard-hitting rap cuts, that if you really dig into, should more than satisfy any “real hip-hop” fans out there.

Bada$$ reenlisted most of the team that helped him shape the feel of 1999, namely the entire, utterly impressive, Pro Era crew, who shine bright and add that definitive Brooklyn-collective flavor that’s once again felt throughout. Statik Selektah & DOOM are also back and deliver their always top-notch signature “ode to classic hip-hop” production styles, and there are a ton of ridiculously fresh beats provided by well-known producers Oddisee, The Alchemist, DJ Premiere, Lee Bannon, and Bruce Leekix. The general vibe on the mixtape is more serious than 1999, but Bada$$ once again hit it out of the park with his beat selection.The music is just as vibrant, powerful and exceptionally well-crafted as his last effort.

It’s also clear that the rapper has been working on his rhymes, and it’s paying off. Bada$$’ verses are sharp, thought-provoking and delivered with a punch. On “Unorthadox” he spits about turning down the Roc Nation offer: “Won’t sign to a major, no wager / Less than a 3 million offer off the top / I’ll be in a box with my cough’ drops / Why settle for an office spot? / Niggas don’t always make it off the block / Unless they extort rocks or support cops.” He compares his dedication to being a rapper to being an addict: “Somehow the rap game reminds me of the trap game / In fact is the exact same, and these tracks is my crack cane.” There’s a poignant tribute to Capital STEEZ on “#LONGLIVESTEELO”: “But how, could I have done it without you though / You was the big bro I never ever had you know / Why you had to go? / It hurt me inside / I feel guilty walking around outside with the false pride.” I could go on and on…

From start to finish, Summer Knights is stacked with quality hip-hop. Lee Bannon-produced “Hilary $wank,” & “9-5 Til Infinity” and DJ Premiere-produced, “Unorthadox” were certified bangers of the summer. If you’re new to Joey Bada$$, these are perfect examples of his sound and style. Other standout tracks include, Chuck Strangers-produced, super slow-jam, “Reign” & the heady, and Oddisee-produced “Sorry Bonita,” which showcases Pro Era’s lyrical blend as a team. All of these are ridiculously good. With 17 songs, the mixtape is definitely longer than it needs to be and can feel overwhelming, but to my surprise, there isn’t much filler. For me, about 80% of it is on the money.

Bada$$ isn’t taking the genre into a brand new direction, but he isn’t pretending to be. Sure he could have easily pivoted towards the more mainstream rapper/pop star dead zone, a la artists like B.o.B. or Nicki Manaj, but he didn’t. Not yet anyway. I can’t help but respect the kid more for that. Summer Knights is proof that 1999 wasn’t a fluke and the attention that the young Brooklyn rapper has been garnering is warranted because Joey Bada$$ is a rapper you should be taking seriously. Right now he sounds more determined than ever to prove to the rap world that he’s the real deal and it’s working.

His official debut studio album, B4.Da.$$ is still on the way, due for release in early 2014, and I’ll be on it the day it drops. Is he going to change it up? Personally, I don’t think he’ll take the bait; but either way, Summer Knights should help assure rap fans that the future of the genre is in good hands.

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