Joey Bada$$ is only 17, but he’s already earned comparisons to Nas, AZ, and Cormega. Maybe it’s his prodigiously lyrical, polysyllabic flow, which resurrects classic mid-1990s New York boom-bap. Or maybe it’s the pitch-perfect production from the Pro Era crew, which sits perfectly at home among MF Doom and J Dilla instrumentals. The resemblance is so uncanny that he’s been accused of plagiarizing the era’s sound - in essence, a borrowed nostalgia for an unremembered decade. Pro Era themselves have disowned the stylistic comparisons: “What people fail to realize is that I’m not only into boom-bap,” Joey maintains, while Chuck Strangers claims that, “contrary to popular belief [...] I don’t just sit around making boom-bap beats all day.”
It’s hard to deny that there are a couple moments on 1999 where Joey risks blurring the line between homage and fetishism—among the most conspicuous is his 16-bar crew shout-out, à la outro to Nas’s “Represent,” over an obscure Lord Finesse beat culled from a 1997 Xperadó vinyl-only B-side. (And it doesn’t help that he’s probably the only 17-year-old reviving words like “buddha” or “mom dukes”).
But 1999 is far more of a stylistic collage than his detractors make it out to be. For one, there’s as many references to Lil B and Watch the Throne as there are to Illmatic, while tracks like “Hardknock” owe a lot to conscious rap (Joey even lists Gandhi among his influences). And his youth imbues the mixtape with a sincerity that’s most apparent on the stuttering ballad “Pennyroyal,” where he quotes “Song Cry” over a MF DOOM beat.
Those accusing Joey of derivativeness might also want to take note of his blistering wit. Whether it’s puns like “Like they gonna catch up/ketchup, fuck what you must heard/mustard” or gags like “I got them girls next to the wood like they Lightyear,” his wordplay is solid gold. Far from merely rehashing a bygone style, 1999 introduces Joey Bada$$ as one of the most exciting new voices in rap.