To be a fan of hip-hop in New York is to be in a constant state of nostalgia. What is being a rap fan without hearing from OGs, counselors, and cousins about the first time they heard 36 Chambers? Being a New Yorker into rap is remembering 9/11 for The Blueprint and not
George Bush’s Osama Bin Laden’s violent pledge. It’s Dipset talking about the Towers reduced to rubble, not as an expression of patriotism but rather New York’s crass and dark ethos, the way the city can turn destructive in a split second. All hip-hop scenes are to be cherished. There’s a book coming out on the story of Atlanta’s rise, all the way from OutKast to Lil Baby. Michigan’s rap scene is running out the country right now with its dirtbag lyrics and menacing piano-filled production. The Louisiana region’s inventive idiolect reverberates through all Black Americans. But New York is everlasting. It’s home. I didn’t have appreciation for those other cities until I got on YouTube. Those cities didn’t birth Jigga, God’s Son, or even someone as chimerical as Yasiin Bey. For New York hip-hop to disappear would be for the birthplace the genre to go extinct.
Your identity as a New York rap fan comes with the chronicles usually reserved for History Channel documentaries. It’s unclear who I would be if not for New York rap. I wouldn’t know who Wu-Tang Clan was. I wouldn’t understand the math of the day. I felt trapped growing up at Mount St. Michael Academy. My mind was moving faster — with sexual identity, humor, anger, and love — than I knew how to deal with. The softness that I had was starting to become blocked by the prism of masculinity. When “Reunited” came on, ‘Ol Dirty quenched that in my rebellious brain. Here’s a man who truly doesn’t give a fuck. He’s morally repugnant and whoever he pleases to be as a Black man. Here’s the thing though: Your childhood is just that. Childhood. Things progress. One day Jay-Z’s making a hollow record for Chelsea residents, the next Gucci Mane is overshadowing him in the streets. What happens when, despite the changes within the world’s musicality, you can’t escape your childhood love? Do you progress or do you do the music that your heroes made, with half the technique?
Joey Bada$$’s 1999 exists in that space. Back when Roc Marciano was combining the art world with cult-classic crime movies, this kid wanted to rap like a member of a Native Tongues group if they had run into rats on the Church Avenue station. Joey, who had started the collective Progressive Era with his friends at Edward R. Morrow High School, was a precocious teenager with a keen sense of realism of daily life in New York. He was ever aware of the borough he hailed from and who his favorite rappers were. A$AP Rocky didn’t bring up his elders unless he was explaining how he stood out from them. Joey mentions Jay-Z on his debut mixtape’s first two songs.
On 1999, released 10 years ago this week, Joey often tries to invoke Rawkus’ righteousness; see the “Waves” couplet “I know niggas who are trashing rapping/ Worry about the trending fashion rather than extending passion.” Sometimes, he goes for the descriptive nihilistic tales that Nas become known for, or the expressionism and inner monologue of Jay-Z. Joey was like putting New York rappers in a blender and seeing what came out. As with smoothies, the fruit itself is always more tasty.
Even the album title, 1999, is the nod to one of the greatest hip-hop years of all time. But that year — from Jay-Z’s mastery of flows, to Mos Def’s Afrocentricism, to Snoop Dogg joining up with No Limit — was dynamic. Eminem blew up and was blamed for school shootings. Jay-Z started violence at the Kit Kat club over the leak of his brilliant Vol. 3. Hip-hop the year before the millennium was an example of both what was to come in music and the virtuosity we would soon be missing out on. 1999 felt like a mimic. From the beginning of “Summer Knights” starting with a clique talking like Illmatic and “FromdaTomb” referencing bringing back “boom bap from the tomb,” Joey was envisioning himself as the new champion of the ’90s sound. It wasn’t just that he appreciated it. Live.Love.A$AP showed an appreciation. Joey was acting as if he was a part of that time; it was like he was making Life Is Good as a teenager. The problem was that Joey’s lyrics contained banal platitudes like “put on my hood when I walk in hoods” and “raise AKs like every day” felt hollow compared to the gutter works of Nas. (In terms of imitating ’90s New York rappers, his actual impersonation of Inspectah Deck in Hulu’s Wu-Tang series is far superior.)
But 1999 was more than its flaws. With his solid wordplay, beat selection, and boyhood charm, Joey was a nighttime rapper. “Waves” hits the best as a song you and your friends look to the sky to after sharing a spliff that makes Joey’s words seem more profound than they are. When the sunrise hit, listening to Joey on your porch with a beer to wind down your night is where he hit the most. “Survival Tactics” is one of three tracks featuring Pro Era mate Capital STEEZ, who bested Joey on the verse with his criticisms of the Obama administration (“If Obama gets that President election, then tell them P.E. boys to make an intervention”). If not quite the talent he was made out to be by Pro Era fans, STEEZ was a good sidekick to Joey. Where Joey talked about his environment in universal platitudes, STEEZ was more direct and topical. He specialized in the kind of questioning of American dogma that made rappers like Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, or even Prodigy famous. STEEZ, who took his own life in December 2012, was the first thing I remembered about this tape. I almost forgot he’s only on three songs; his presence looms larger. Hearing STEEZ and Joey together reminds me of my own relationships with friends whose eyes were more open than my mystical poet personality. Production remains this mixtape’s strongest feature: The recycled DOOM beat on “World Domination” is an excellent find. It could have only come from a New York kid who fancies himself as part of a lineage with the masked man.
Still, the album slags in the middle when Joey starts to make conceptual love songs. Joey isn’t quite the MC he needs to be to make songs like that work. “Pennyroyal” is another recycled MF DOOM beat from Special Herbs Vol 4, 5, 6 with an interpolation of Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” at the end, but it’s Tupperware A Tribe Called Quest to me. He doesn’t have the romantic chops to pull it off. I was the only teenager that wasn’t trying to hear about puppy. “Funky Ho’$” reads as a young man’s view of women after one bad breakup. (Trust me, I know). Although intended as a grand statement from a new torchbearer, 1999 worked best as a teenager searching for his soul in a New York that was increasingly becoming harder to live in.
On “Righteous Minds,” the thirteenth song on the record, Joey perfects what he could have been with the best hook on the mixtape: “It ain’t easy living life like this, when you tryin’ to be righteous but know a nigga might just leave you lifeless for prices.” The song deals with a level of humility that the middle of the tape is missing. It’s reminiscent of some of the weariness of your city but also of posturing that someone like Chance The Rapper does on Acid Rap. Joey suggests that kids don’t fight when robbed because material items aren’t with it. It even contains a sample of an infamous Belly scene. Even though the song does have callbacks to Jay-Z’s flow on “22 Two’s,” the key to its charm was its earnestness that deals with teenage ego as well as someone who has been robbed but ended up coming home to a loving family at night. You can’t say that Joey didn’t care.
As much as I loved New York growing up and still do, worshipping your heroes gets you nowhere. The brilliant and regal Jay-Z is bringing bitcoin to Bed-Stuy. The Ghetto chronicler Nas raps about crypto and was accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife Kelis. MF DOOM has passed away. Despite my love for New York, it is not the best region out anymore. It’s not even the third-best, or fourth. The reasons can fill an entire lunch menu. Natives are priced out, and New York is inhabited by transplants that listen to Harry Styles. Late capitalism has rendered music, especially an original genre like hip-hop, something that becomes recycled to meet the algorithm as opposed to the beginning of the zeitgeist. I cover hip-hop for a living and I also have never felt more detached from the joy of it all. There are a lot of great rappers out, but I no longer find the youthful jubilation the Joey Bada$$ of 1999 felt about the music he loves and the city he’s from. It’s cool, though: Cynicism comes for us all.