On the anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, we revisit one of the year’s most political hip-hop albums
For obvious reasons, Donald Trump’s presidency and the current hostile political climate in the US has provoked a knee-jerk response of protest and defiance from hip-hop culture. A plethora of rappers have recently adopted a more political approach through their music and 22-year-old Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$, whose 2015 debut album B4.DA.$$ was seriously slept on in my opinion, is no exception. With his sophomore attempt, ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey delivers an anti-establishment protest album with which he provides a social commentary from the perspective of a young Black man living in Trump’s America. From the all-capitalised album and track titles to the album cover, which shows him with two middle fingers up, and the not so subtle KKK references throughout the album, in ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey has crafted an abrasive body of work which screams, “Fuck white America, fuck white supremacy and fuck Trump!”
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ kicks off with the chilled intro track, ‘GOOD MORNING AMERIKKKA’, with the opening lines, “yeah (wake up, wake up) / Free your mind (I said wake up) / Good morning Amerikkka// Good morning Amerikkka (I said wake up)”. The echo of these lines sounds innocuous and subtly introduces the album’s central recurring theme of ‘staying woke’. ‘Staying woke’ is defined as “being alert to injustice in society, especially racism” and the term has been popularised in recent years due to its association with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement on social media. Joey uses the rest of this track to expand further on this concept of staying woke, with lyrics like, “some of us woke while some stay snoozed / Zombies walkin’ around trippin’ over issues”, serving as a message that there needs to be an awakening of the mass consciousness to the social ills prevalent in modern America.
“Joey delivers an anti-establishment protest album with which he provides a social commentary from the perspective of a young black man living in Trump’s America”
‘FOR MY PEOPLE’ follows and we hear Joey embrace his position as a leader of the people and seek to encourage those Americans afflicted by the corrupt system with the uplifting chorus, “this for my people, trynna stay alive and just stay peaceful / So hard to survive a world so lethal / Who will take a stand and be our hero, of my people, yeah?”. In an era where countless young artists only rap about women, drugs and money, it’s both rare and refreshing for a 22 year old to be so socially conscious. Joey recognises that a lot of his young fans pay more attention to rappers than to their parents and teachers, and he has previously spoken about feeling a sense of responsibility as a young artist to therefore spread a positive message through his music. Joey’s acceptance of this responsibility as a young artist separates him from the other young rappers coming up in the game and bars like, “so I thank the Lord when I wake up in the morn’ / Cause to inform the world the very reason I was born” allude to this.
Another thing that sets Joey apart from his contemporaries is his appreciation of 90’s hip-hop. I would argue that Joey’s admiration for that era of hip-hop has perhaps worked against him in the past and seen him described as a “boom-bap revivalist” whose old-school style would be more at home in the 90’s. Regardless, Joey stays true to his Brooklyn roots on this album by spitting over classic boom-bap beats on tracks like ‘RING THE ALARM’, which features Kirk Knight, Meechy Darko and Nyck Caution, and the Styles P-assisted ‘SUPER PREDATOR’. Joey’s old-school vibe particularly shines through on ‘TEMPTATION’. The album’s third track is one of the standouts and we find Joey confronting racism, prejudice and bigotry. The track’s intro and outro sample a speech given by nine year old Zianna Oliphant at a council meeting in the wake of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, and her words resonate to provide one of the more poignant moments on the album.
“Joey has crafted an abrasive body of work which screams, “Fuck white America, fuck white supremacy and fuck Trump!”
The next two tracks, ‘LAND OF THE FREE’ and ‘DEVASTATED’, were its two lead singles and they carry on in much the same vein sonically as the other tracks at the start of the album. That’s to say that all the tracks in the first half give more relaxed, reflective and nuanced critiques of the American political establishment. However, in my opinion, the first half of the album is markedly weaker than its second half. I personally prefer when Joey is more aggressive with his flow and spitting braggadocious, almost ignorant, bars (for instance, “got dragon balls like my name was Vegeta” on ‘Christ Conscious’ and “check my style, check, check, check it out” on ‘Big Dusty’ from his 2015 album, B4.DA.$$).
This aggressive style of rap is almost completely neglected in the first half of this album and isn’t really heard until ‘ROCKABYE BABY’, the ScHoolboy Q-assisted seventh track on which we hear Joey proclaim, “and if you got the guts, scream, ‘Fuck Donald Trump!’”. ‘RING THE ALARM’, the eighth track and one of my favourites, sees Joey at his most boastful and aggressive as he takes a break from discussing the album’s central themes to take aim at trash ‘SoundCloud rappers’ and the general lack of lyrical skill in the rap game right now. Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight spit, “all I hear is that ad-lib rappin’ on my SoundCloud / Sick of the trash out, this is the crackdown”, whilst Joey spits venomous bars throughout, referring to himself as “the double entendre monster” and declaring, “resurrection of real, you niggas fake” on the chorus. In an interview with Hot97, Joey describes this album as “vegetables” in an industry with a lot of “candy and fast food”. He sees his peers producing easily digestible music which lacks substance but, in ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$, Joey has chosen to craft a project which is “good” for the listener.
“In an era where countless young artists only rap about women, drugs and money, it’s both rare and refreshing for a 22 year old to be so socially conscious”
Joey was ordained as one of this generation’s “gatekeepers of flow” by the legendary Q-Tip on ‘Dis Generation’ from A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, and he’s already cemented his place as one of the most skilled lyricists of our generation, going toe-to-toe with the elusive J. Cole with ease on the penultimate track ‘LEGENDARY’. In my opinion, Joey has the potential to reach top five status in today’s rap game but, in order to reach the upper echelon of rap (with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, J. Cole and, more recently, Chance the Rapper to name a few), Joey needs to find a way to better marry his reflective side with the boisterous bars featured in the second half of the album. He does this to perfection on the tenth track, the Chronixx-assisted ‘BABYLON’. Joey’s anger and sheer emotion at the injustice dealt by the American government can be felt through every bar as we hear him scream, “turn on CNN, look at what I see again / It’s another black man, died at the white hand of justice / To tell the truth man, I’m fucking disgusted”, “nowadays they hangin’ us by a different tree / Branches of the government, I can name all three / Judicial, legislative and executive” and “if Black lives really mattered, you niggas would do something”.
“We hear Joey proclaim “And if you got the guts, scream ‘Fuck Donald Trump!’”
Joey concludes the album with ‘AMERIKKKAN IDOL’, a six-minute thriller on which he completely denounces the media, American government and criminal justice system, and delivers a chilling warning to the listeners – “devisin’ plans while you sleepin’, I’m just trynna stay woke”. The track is effectively the culmination of Joey’s musings on the themes and subject matter discussed throughout the album, with Joey touching on everything from police brutality and political corruption to gangs, Black-on-Black violence and mass incarceration. The last verse in particular is outstanding and it arguably carries the most important message of a mainstream hip-hop verse thus far in 2017. This message highlights the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is using media and political propaganda in an attempt to “start a Civil War within the USA amongst Black and white and those alike”, and serves as a call to action to those young people experiencing systematic oppression in America.
Only time will tell whether this album will prove to be a “timely and timeless masterpiece”, as Joey described it in his Hot97 interview. Although he could stand to make it more cohesive to better reflect all aspects of his artistry (he almost sounds like two different artists at different points on the album), in ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ Joey succeeds in delivering an impressive sophomore effort with an important message.