Once you work your way through its thicket of numbers, periods, and symbols, the title of Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$ seems self-explanatory: a snapshot of a young artist on the cusp, implying both an atmosphere of pre-fame candor and the money that’ll soon be rolling in. It’s also the first indicator of green as a recurrent motif, an arbiter of status and power that filters its way throughout this surprisingly well-structured debut. Blustery in all the usual ways, the 19-year-old Bada$$ is also precociously considerate of both album arrangement and public perception, viewing his passage from ordinary teenager to budding star as an occasion for self-reflection and cultural examination. All this deliberation grants an analytical exactness to B4.DA.$$, which deftly traverses the different economies of the rap world, from the desperate hustle of the streets to the showy wastefulness of the club and the tricky minefield of the music business.
On the surface, the album’s repurposing of familiar hip-hop templates may seem derivative, but Bada$$’s approach recognizes the past as a stylistic jumping-off point for his own modern brand of thoughtful lyricism. A work of second-wave ’90s revisionism, B4.DA.$$ builds on Kendrick Lamar instead of A$AP Rocky, offering content-heavy rhymes which explore various thematic concepts through torrents of free-associative wordplay. Bada$$ may not have Lamar’s gift for lyricism or narrative, but his work is impressively composed for such a young voice, stringing together intricate series of metaphors over crisp, non-intrusive old-school beats.
Building off material from classicists like Statik Selektah, Freddie Joachim, and Gang Starr stalwart DJ Premier, B4.DA.$$ affects a warm, vinyl-inspired sound, the sort of production that not only samples heavily from jazz, but borrows its structures, with spare, languid backdrops offering ample space for the rapper to operate. This itself is inviting in an era dominated by cold, over-produced albums, many of which employ the rigorous regimentation of electronica as a baseline and feel calculated toward market saturation rather than personal expression. Aimed at a more boutique audience, B4.DA.$$ never tries to be more than an apprentice work, working up an articulate introduction for a serious-minded new talent.
The songs are therefore small and minimal, saving the grand artistic statements for later as Bada$$ hones his voice. “Paper Trail$” shrugs off the importance of money while subtly asserting its necessity, introducing the album’s characteristic mixture of desperate hustle and soft-touch casualness. “Curry Chicken” is less intense and more atmospheric, the rapper softening his barely restrained bark, spinning out sing-song lines over a downright cozy soul backdrop. The overall flow may not vary much from song to song, but Bada$$’s work remains remarkable, confirming him as a limber, dexterous presence, gifted at working out intricate imagery within seemingly sleepy verses.
It also establishes him as an artist who looks toward the past for inspiration without getting mired in fetishism, developing his own individual approach in the midst of all these antique sounds. Drawing off nearly 40 years of hip-hop history, B4.DA.$$ is a hodgepodge work which equates organic, sample-oriented music with a certain type of old-fashioned conviction, its repurposing of Dilla beats and Wu-Tang lines signaling a commitment to thoughtful, content-focused fare. Calling his work pure nostalgic revisionism ignores the genre’s tradition of building new methods on top of outmoded ones, and at his best Bada$$ seems to be consciously crafting the introduction to his own career, a postmodern interpreter of symbols and modes who’s acutely conscious of the effect of his choices. The ability to repurpose classic sounds toward a different type of effect is a notable quality for such a budding voice.