There isn’t a genre or culture more easily differentiated by its era than hip-hop. A short rotation of titles and buzzwords can trigger the sights and sounds of any given decade within the past 30 years. “The Golden Age” is an evocative one; Ripe with the predatory, yet prolific, foundation of Run-DMC and Public Enemy, up through the cognitive dissonance between the afrocentric alternatives of Tribe and Dilla, vs the gangsta rap explosion ranging anywhere from Wu Tang to DPG. On the other hand, Brooklyn native Joey Bada$$, who was born in ’95, wasn’t around for, pretty much, any of it. Now, the lowest hanging fruit in this rising MC’s career right now is clearly his age. But, at just 17 years old, 1999 sounds like a debut mixtape that owes it’s entire conception to a decade that its author left nearly no impression on. Yet, under the cloak of clear nostalgic influence, Joey still finds a way to identify himself to the listener.
To be clear, it’s not just the 90′s that Bada$$ emulates through the beats and rhymes here. It’s, specifically: east coast, boom-bap, occasionally-do-the-wop, gritty, no half-steppin’, 90′s hip-hop. You’ll pick out some Nas, probably some Mobb Deep, and even Big L (if you’re reaching), but Joey isn’t that adept or studied to fulfill those comparisons — though, that clearly comes with, *ahem*, age experience. What Joey does do well is keep his surface-level musings entertaining. “Survival Tactics”, featuring his Pro Era teammate Capital STEEZ, is a vocal exercise built around a nimble drum beat and sparse keyboard vibes, but it’s the lyrics that hold the track together: “My P.E conglomerates bout to P-E-E on any wanna B-E, weak MC” snarls Joey, only to be 1-up’d by STEEZ on the next verse, “They say hard work pays off, well tell the Based God don’t quit his day job/Cause P.E’s about to take off, with protons and electrons, homie that’s an A-bomb”. It’s the free-flowing nature of Bada$$ that keeps his lyrics so fresh. Because, in all reality, the kid’s not saying much new, and the beats, while meticulously crafted and chosen (we get takes on MF DOOM’s “Vomitspit”, a Dilla beat from Donuts, and a Statik Selektah classic), aren’t varied enough to show a sufficient amount of range.
While some of that may veer on the negative side, it’s not all too detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the album. That’s due, mostly, to consistency. From early, reminiscent tracks like “Waves” and “Hardknock”, to eclectic grooves like “Funky Ho’s” and “Where It’$ At”; which all seem like connecting album cuts, yet slowly become highlights through repeat listens. The amount of contextual replay value is akin to veterans like Jay-Z and Outkast — solely on the ability to bury dense lines in labyrinthine flows, of course — but, there’s also the excitement of actively learning, mid-album, the tendencies of Joey himself. Beyond what he says is the interplay between the instrumentals that Bada$$ has. “FromdaTomb$”, assisted by another Pro Era member (and in-house producer), Chuck Strangers, navigates between a light, Camp Lo-ish beat, dueling with fat horns that recall a Digable Planets single. So, accordingly, Joey adjusts to the subtleties of the track, slightly nuancing his phrasing and delivery as the beat progresses. It’s a device that every MC should covet, but so many lack.
My gripes with the mixtape aren’t necessarily anything Joey can control. Which, yes, isn’t exactly fair, but the album does tend to unfavorably string together. And, that’s a clear goal for Joey and his production team, but there’s no way around getting fatigued by the fifth or sixth time through. Now, that’s a solid ratio of listens without skips, but the time does come, and it’s chiefly due to the lack of variety in the overall atmosphere. Add to that the fact that 1999 is fairly front loaded, and you’ve got a recipe for some forgotten filler tracks. Not to be outdone, though, the tape ends with “Suspect”, one of the best possee tracks I’ve heard in recent memory (yup, even better than this one), and showcases some artists that I hope can see the light of day from beneath that Pro Era soil (I’m pulling for you, T’nah Apex).
On “Daily Routine”, Joey spits:
“But that’s just daily routine
The streets is couped fiends
Whether the hoops or the booth
Niggas shoot dreams
Better choose the right scheme
Cause you can think you cool wit yo nice things
But get wiped cleaned for ice cream when the lights beam”
And, it’s that type of perspective that may come to debunk many of my complaints, and certainly those who doubt his skill due to age. There’s a sagacious nature to Joey that isn’t confined to his influences or digital crate-digging. The fact of the matter is, it’s 2012, anyone can be a hip-hop historian. Any album can be found. And, any person, of any age, can wear their influences on their sleeve, even if said influence is long beyond that individuals frame of impressionability.