To be a fan of hip-hop in New York is to be in a constant state of nostalgia. What’s it like to be a rap fan without hearing OGs, advisers and cousins talk about the first time they heard 36 Rooms? To be a rap-loving New Yorker is to remember 9/11 for The plan and not
by George Bush The violent engagement of Osama bin Laden. It’s Dipset talking about the rubble towers, not as an expression of patriotism but rather of New York’s crass and dark ethos, how destructive the city can become in a split second. All hip-hop scenes are to be cherished. There’s a book coming out on the story of Atlanta’s rise from OutKast to Lil Baby. Michigan’s rap scene is racing across the country right now with its backpacking lyrics and menacing, piano-filled production. The Louisiana-area’s inventive idiolect reverberates through every black American. But New York is eternal. It is the house. I had no appreciation for these other cities until I was on YouTube. These cities did not give birth to Jigga, the Son of God, or even someone as chimerical as Yasiin Bey. If New York hip-hop disappeared, the cradle of the genre would die out.
Your identity as a New York rap fan comes with the chronicles usually reserved for History Channel documentaries. No one knows who I would be without New York rap. I wouldn’t know who the Wu-Tang Clan was. I would not understand the calculations of the day. I felt trapped growing up at Mount St. Michael Academy. My mind was moving faster – with gender identity, humor, anger, and love – than I knew how to deal with. The softness I had was beginning to be blocked by the prism of masculinity. When “Reunited” came out, ‘Ol Dirty turned that off in my rebellious brain. Here is a man who really doesn’t care. He is morally repugnant and anyone he wants to be as a black man. Here’s the thing though: Your childhood is just that. Childhood. Things are moving forward. One day Jay-Z makes a hollow record for the people of Chelsea, the next Gucci Mane eclipses him in the streets. What happens when, despite changes in the musicality of the world, you can’t escape your childhood sweetheart? Are you progressing or making the music your heroes made, with half the technique?
Joey Bada$$ 1999 exists in this space. Back when Roc Marciano was combining the art world with cult crime movies, this kid wanted to rap like a member of a Native Tongues band if he encountered any rats at the Church Avenue station. Joey, who had started the Progressive Era collective with his high school friends Edward R. Morrow, was a precocious teenager with a strong sense of realism about everyday life in New York City. He was always aware of the borough he was from and who his favorite rappers were. A$AP Rocky didn’t talk about his elders unless he explained how he differed from them. Joey mentions Jay-Z on the first two songs of his debut mixtape.
On 1999, released 10 years ago this week, Joey often tries to invoke the righteousness of Rawkus; see the verse “Waves” “I know some niggas that rap badmouth / Worry about the fashion trend instead of spreading the passion.” Sometimes he opts for the descriptive nihilistic tales for which Nas has become known, or the expressionism and inner monologue of Jay-Z. Joey was like putting New York rappers in a blender and seeing what came out. As with smoothies, the fruit itself is always tastier.
Even the title of the album, 1999, is a nod to one of the greatest hip-hop years of all time. But this year — from Jay-Z’s flow mastery to Mos Def’s Afrocentrism, to Snoop Dogg joining No Limit — has been dynamic. Eminem blew up and was blamed for the school shootings. Jay-Z started violence at the Kit Kat club following the leak of his brilliant Flight. 3. The hip-hop of the pre-millennium year was an example of both what was to come in music and the virtuosity we were soon to miss. 1999 felt like an imitator. From the beginning of “Summer Knights” starting with a clique that talks like Illmatic and “FromdaTomb” referencing the return of the “boom bap from the tomb”, Joey saw himself as the new champion of 90s sound. It wasn’t just that he liked it. Live.Love.A$AP showed appreciation. Joey acted like he was part of that era; it was as if he was doing Life is Beautiful like a teenager. The problem was that Joey’s lyrics containing banal platitudes like “putting my hood on when I’m walking in hoods” and “lifting AKs like everyday” sounded hollow compared to Nas’ gutter work. (In terms of impersonating ’90s New York rappers, his true imitation of Inspectah Deck in Hulu’s Wu-Tang series is far superior.)
But 1999 was more than its faults. With his solid wordplay, selection of beats, and boyhood charm, Joey was a late-night rapper. “Waves” hits best as the song you and your friends look up to the sky after sharing a spliff that makes Joey’s words sound deeper than they are. When the sunrise hits, listening to Joey on your porch with a beer to wind down your night is where it hits hardest. “Survival Tactics” is one of three tracks featuring Pro Era sidekick Capital STEEZ, who beat Joey on the verse with his criticisms of the Obama administration (“If Obama gets this presidential election, then tell ’em the boys of the PE to make an intervention”). While not quite the talent he was touted by Pro Era fans, STEEZ was a good sidekick to Joey. Where Joey talked about his surroundings in universal platitudes, STEEZ was more direct and topical. He specialized in the kind of questioning of American dogma that made famous rappers like Immortal Technique, Dead Prez or Prodigy. STEEZ, who committed suicide in December 2012, is the first thing I remember about this tape. I almost forgot it’s only on three songs; his presence is greater. Hearing STEEZ and Joey together reminds me of my own relationships with friends whose eyes were more open than my mystical poet persona. The production remains the highlight of this mixtape: the recycled DOOM beat on “World Domination” is a great find. It could only have come from a kid in New York who imagines himself to be part of a line with the masked man.
Still, the album lagged in the middle when Joey started making concept love songs. Joey isn’t quite the MC he needs to make songs like this work. “Pennyroyal” is another recycled MF DOOM beat from Special Herbs Vol 4, 5, 6 with an interpolation of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” at the end, but that’s Tupperware A Tribe Called Quest to me. He doesn’t have the romantic chops to succeed. I was the only teenager who didn’t try to hear about a puppy. “Funky Ho’$” reads like a young man’s take on women after a bad breakup. (Trust me, I know). Although intended as a big statement from a new torchbearer, 1999 worked best as a teenager searching for his soul in a New York that was becoming increasingly difficult to live with.
On “Righteous Minds,” the thirteenth song on the record, Joey perfects what he could have been with the mixtape’s best hook: “It’s not easy living a life like this, when you’re trying to be fair but that you know a nigga might just leave you lifeless for the awards. The song is about a level of humility that’s lacking in the middle of the band. It’s reminiscent of some of your town weariness but also the postures that someone ‘one like Chance The Rapper does on acid rap. Joey suggests that children don’t fight when they’re robbed because material objects aren’t with them. It even contains a sample of an infamous Belly stage. Even though the song has callbacks to Jay-Z’s flow on “22 Two’s,” the key to its charm was its seriousness that deals with teenage egos as well as someone who was robbed but ended up go home to a loving family at night. . You can’t say Joey didn’t care.
Even though I loved New York growing up and still do, worshiping your heroes doesn’t get you anywhere. The brilliant and majestic Jay-Z brings bitcoin to Bed-Stuy. Ghetto columnist Nas raps about crypto and has been accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife Kelis. MF DOOM passed away. Despite my love for New York, it’s not the best region anymore. It’s not even the third or the fourth. The grounds can fill an entire lunch menu. The natives are overpriced and New York is inhabited by transplants who listen to Harry Styles. Late capitalism has made music, especially an original genre like hip-hop, something that becomes recycled to suit the algorithm as opposed to early zeitgeist. I cover hip-hop for a living and I’ve never felt so detached from the joy of it all. There are many great rappers, but I no longer find the youthful jubilation of the Joey Bada$$ of 1999 about the music he likes and the city he comes from. It’s cool, though: the cynicism comes for all of us.