It would make sense for older rap fans, who love blaming young rappers for ruining the genre with their ratchet ways, to embrace Joey Bada$$, an 18-year-old ’90s-hip-hop revivalist. But the Brooklyn MC has received more backlash than praise from old heads lately. He has been called derivative, overly nostalgic, disingenuous and a mimic for his efforts to create music that showcases the boom-bap production style and complex lyricism of ’90s golden-era hip-hop.
But to see Joey Bada$$ live is to understand his music and his motives a bit better. At his Fillmore Silver Spring show on Friday, it was clear that he isn’t parroting rap legends in an effort to market himself to those who grew up on ’90s hip-hop; he’s trying to bring that music to listeners his age. For those who cut their teeth on Lil Wayne but feel more of a kinship with Big L, he fills an important void. Joey Bada$$ gives young people a taste of a wonderful time in hip-hop history, and his live show lets them experience it without having to party with people as old as their parents.
He is co-headlining the overstuffed bill of the Smoker’s Club tour with Ab-Soul, a member of Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy crew. Ab gave a tight, perfectly timed set, heavy on last year’s “Control System.” From “Track Two” to “Bohemian Grove,” he delivered perfect vocals and was a study in hip-hop live-show perfection, from crisp sound to pitch-perfect ad-libs. By contrast, Joey Bada$$ bounded on stage, shouted “Ayo, whaddup, Silver Springs?” and powered through his set with plenty of youthful exuberance but less polish.
He started with “World Domination,” a boastful track delivered over an MF Doom beat, from his debut solo mix tape, “1999,” released last year. He then tumbled into his verse from the group track “1 Train,” from A$AP Rocky’s debut, and the Stetsasonic-sampling “Sweet Dreams,” which gives a peek into his affinity for the music of the decade in which he was born: “Sweet dreams, stuck in the ’90s / ’90s babies it’s a matter of time.”
After performing his two biggest tracks to date, “Waves” and “95 Til Infinity,” Joey could have closed with a perfectly sized set, but then came another 20-plus minutes of material from his Pro Era crew members, including Kirk Knight, A La $ole, Nyck Caution and CJ Fly. With the exception of a touching tribute to Pro Era member Capital STEEZ, who died last year, the group set was too long and disorganized for a hip-hop show in 2013. But at a time when hip-hop is an increasingly slick commercial machine, it could be argued that abdicating the last half-hour of his show to showcase up-and-comers from his crew was one of the most authentically old-school hip-hop things Joey did all night.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.