Joey Bada$$ Is A Guy You Want to Root For Even When He Isn’t Sure What To Do With His Talent

“I can take five years off ‘cause my shit is timeless,” claims Joey Bada$$ on “The Baddest,” the opener to his third official album, 2000. The Brooklyn rapper takes pains to assert that he’s only leveled up since. No, he doesn’t mention his breakout acting performance in the second season of Mr. Robot, or his current stints on Grown-ish and Power Book III: Raising Kanan. He also doesn’t try to replicate the success of his double-platinum hit, 2016’s melodic-rap delight “Devastated.” However, he talks a lot about making “eight figures.” He also offers album art that’s inspired by his debut mixtape, the 2012 classic 1999. That cover depicted two kids skateboarding across a graffiti-strewn wall; this time out, Joey poses in front of a bodega, gold jewelry shining amidst the tableau.

Released at the age of 17, 1999 left an impression that was hard to escape. He’s been pegged as a throwback rapper, a sometimes-derogatory phrase for artists who prefer dusty, sampled loops. Akin to Nas and his epochal debut Illmatic, 1999 stands as Joey Bada$$’s defining statement, casting a shadow over subsequent projects that seem lesser by comparison. (Ironically and perhaps intentionally, Nas shows up to pay tribute to Bada$$ on “Cruise Control.”) Contrary to reputation, he isn’t a traditionalist railing against mainstream trap and drill, but he doesn’t eschew the sound that made his name, either. In 2000, he rocks with a handful of familiar names, including producer Statik Selektah as well as Flatbush Zombies’ Erick the Architect and Chuck Strangers from his Pro Era/Beast Coast camps. The result is breezy boasts set over music frequently garlanded with nightclub sounds. “Still I went and copped me the Porsche just for my mental health/Guess I couldn’t help myself,” Bada$$ humblebrags on “Brand New.”

There are several cut where Bada$$ tries to flex, none bigger than when he brings on the king of Bad Boy to open and close the album. “Can you say New York City?!” crows Diddy, who subsequently introduces Bada$$ as a “survivor.” R&B samples of famed acts (DeBarge on “The Baddest”) and enticingly mysterious unknowns (Times 3 on “One of Us”) abound, making for a bubbly, summery vibe akin to mid-Nineties mafioso rap: Think AZ’s Doe or Die or Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. At one point, Bada$$ brings out Chris Brown for “Welcome Back,” an obnoxious cut where the two brag about dicking down some hapless guy’s girlfriend. Smartly, he follows with a good counterweight in “Show Me How,” which is essentially a rap remix of indie-pop band Men I Trust’s 2019 gem of the same title. “Transparency is my love language,” he says to an unnamed romantic partner. “We’ve been through many changes like Mase still we found a way.”

Eventually, Bada$$ attempts to find deeper meaning in his success. “Survivor’s Guilt” finds him revisiting the death of Capital Steez, who has become a cult figure since he took his life at 19 in 2012. The two’s Pro Era crew organized an annual STEEZ Day event for a few years until the late rapper’s family withdrew their support for the 2018 edition. “And here’s a message to his fam/I know y’all got emotional trauma, that I understand,” raps Bada$$ with clear anguish. “I’m just trying to get my nigga heard/Get him what he deserves.”

Yet a larger question remains: who is Joey Bada$$ the rapper in 2022? In some ways, he’ll always be that kid rocking ciphers in New York with Steez and Pro Era. But he’s evolved with an airy, melodic pop sound, often supplemented with live instruments, that both brightens and tastefully smothers his idiosyncrasies. A key moment arrives when Larry June appears on “Zipcodes.” The Bay Area rapper likes to buffer his lines until they feel as smooth as a car’s bodyshell. (Generally speaking, all the rap cameos are solid, including ones by Westside Gunn and J.I.D.) By contrast, Bada$$ bobs and swerves about in a gruff and deeply accented flow. It doesn’t feel effortless, even when he’s undeniably hitting quality shots.

At times, 2000 strains under its ambition. It’s unclear whether Bada$$ wants to build an Important Album or simply release something commensurate with his growing celebrity. Will listeners who have barely heard from him since the uneven 2019 Beast Coast comp Escape from New York want to continue following his musical journey? He seems torn about it himself. “All my opps unified, I wish them more luck,” he raps on “Written in the Stars.” Yet when he harmonizes with backing singer Noleac “Nole” Yahsin on “Wanna Be Loved,” he admits, “We just wanna be loved/We don’t wanna be judged.” Relevant or not, Joey Bada$$ is still a charismatic hero. You want him to win, even when you’re unsure he can pull it off.