Being black is hard, and it doesn't take long for a black person growing up in America or elsewhere to come to that realization. What can take a long time to figure out and often is a question that follows you through your whole life is how to cope with the challenges of being a black person. Do you dedicate your life to speaking out against every act of injustice you learn of? Do you only worry about liberating yourself? Can you actually change anything? Do you feel cursed? As one comes of age, these are questions that tend to continuously resurface, if they ever go away. Joey Bada$$ has been having similar thoughts. The 22-year-old Brooklyn rapper who caught the attention of the wider hip-hop community as a high schooler in 2012 is figuring out how to incorporate these feelings in his music, which previously tended to lean heavily on how prolific his rap skills were. "I've been watching all these events over the last four years and I've been feeling helpless," he told Billboard in a recent interview about the process of making his sophomore album, All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$.
The first half of the album reaffirms this way of thinking. Each of the six opening tracks finds Joey perusing the ways American society is structured to keep its black citizens disadvantaged from birth. On "Land of the Free" he uses Barack Obama's presidency as an example of racial progress that isn't nearly enough to fix the bulk of black Americans' problems. As a solution, he proposes organizing a new party of sorts that can replace the the corruption that currently plagues the country's government. "Y U Don't Love Me?" is a letter written to America asking why the value of black life, self-worth, and progress is disregarded, if not handicapped completely. "Temptation," one of his most fluid tracks, starts with a tear-jerking clip of nine-year-old girl Zianna Oliphant giving a speech at Charlotte's City Hall after 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police officers in September of 2016. During her speech she said "I feel like that we are treated differently than other people. And I don't like how we're treated. Just because of our color doesn't mean anything to me," before coming to tears. It's the kind of clip that can easily infuriate and crush a black elder or parent—knowing there's nothing you can do to shield an elementary school-age child from being exposed to this reality and needing to be this emotionally sophisticated.
There are moments that are more colorful on the album, though. While the entire first half is fairly monotone, with pleasant and optimistic production, the second half sees Joey Bada$$ getting back to flexing his rap chops and experimenting with varied inflections and flow patterns. He raises his octaves for the first time on "Rockabye Baby" with Schoolboy Q, a song that brings out a playful spirit in his delivery. Q maintains the album's central theme and explores the paradox of having massive influence over white youth while not having access to the privileges they enjoy: "And oddly we still ain't even / Still a small percentage of blacks that's eating." The ensuing songs show Bada$$ much more animated as well, as he combines his message with his gift for wordplay. On "Babylon," with roots reggae artist Chronixx, he's at his most passionate, rapping, "Hanging us by a different tree / branches of the government. I can name all t(h)ree / judicial, legislative, and executive / lock your pops away, trap your moms, then next your kids." The friendly competition of posse cut "Ring the Alarm," which features Meechy Darko of Flatbush Zombies as well as fellow Pro Era members Kirk Knight and Nyck Caution, serves him well, too.
One of the understated strong suits of All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is the richness of its production. While Joey goes through the issues that he sees plaguing the black community and wanting to see brighter times, the jazz elements of his songs properly convey a similar message independently (especially on tracks like "Temptation," Legendary," and "Super Predator"). Those elements help make the album a smooth listen without letting it fall into the trap of sounding like one long song. Opting to use this production also helps dispel the lazy and convenient notion that Joey Bada$$ is a 90s boom-bap rap revivalist. "I don't try to make 90s music. It's a misconception with me," he said as guest on Desus and Mero in March. "It's actually something I really hate talking about 'cause people only think it's Joey Bada$$... Once you really inside of my music and you really are a listener, you know that's not all I have to offer." All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ supports that statement and continues a long legacy of black artists speaking through variations of jazz to properly convey their social commentary—recent examples being artists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar.
With that esteemed legacy in mind, however, the abundance of sounds on the album magnifies the lack of Joey's depth. At no point does he dig deeper than surface level critiques of the establishment. But that doesn't mean the message isn't valid; indeed, this kind of straightforwardness is what ultimately begins a discourse. People have always entered these conversations at different stages. And with the heightened level of visibility for people being brutalized and abused these past four years, the album is a good companion piece for the college-age kids learning the intricacies of systematic oppression by way of documentaries on YouTube and eye-opening history courses. The ideas of replacing the government, doing away with unhealthy foods that fill black neighborhoods, and distancing yourself from religion are all things that many young black people entertain at this stage of life.
There are also moments where the lack of fluidity in Joey's message show that he's learning on the fly. On "Temptation" he comes for people "complaining all day, but in the same condition" as well as those who are mentally "enslaved by their religion." Those lines don't quite translate as malicious, but they do run counter to the togetherness that Joey advocates for on most of All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$. It's tempting to dismiss his ideology in moments like these, just as it is easy to assume that the realizations he's come to on this album should have already been clear as day. But that would disregard his public maturation: Since the age of 17 he's been a professional recording artist pursuing an all-consuming career. Given that his fanbase is overwhelmingly teenaged, the information being provided on All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ could be right on time for kids trying to cope with the next four years in America and beyond.
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