With his sophomore album, a new sound and a clearer outlook on the problems of the world around him, Joey Bada$$ is ready for the next level.
On a cold but clear Sunday afternoon in late February, Joey Bada$$ is talking about aliens. "We don't doubt they exist, but we don't truly believe it because we got so many distractions," he says, laughing. "Like, 'Yeah, I know these aliens gonna come one day, but let me get this selfie though.'"
Parked in his black Jeep on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, the skyline of lower Manhattan glittering across the East River provides the perfect backdrop for a photo op. But now, five weeks into Donald Trump’s tumultuous term as president of the United States, the 22-year-old rapper knows it's not the time for distractions. "Now that Obama's out of office," he says more seriously, "this can be said: Yeah, we were sleeping. It's time to wake the f--k back up."
This mix of thoughtful imagination and social consciousness has been a theme for Joey, born Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott in East Flatbush, since he broke onto the scene with his debut mixtape, 1999, in 2012. His wordplay had primarily focused on his rise as a young black man in Brooklyn, but his sophomore album, All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ (out April 7), addresses social conflict with an astuteness that recalls J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, two rappers who also broke through half a decade ago. Songs like the ironically-titled lead single “Land of the Free,” defiantly hopeful “For My People” and the call to arms of album-closer “AmeriKKKan Idol” straddle the line between justified anger and practical resistance, laying out a world view that is more balanced than reactionary.
"I've been watching all these events over the last four years and I've been feeling helpless," he says, referencing the police brutality against African-Americans and rising tide of far-right populism. "But I feel like this is where it starts: me opening up the conversation."
When his breakthrough single "Survival Tactics" arrived in 2012, Bada$$ was a high school junior studying theater at Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School and rapping with his Pro Era crew, led by himself and Capital STEEZ, about chakras and third eyes over New York boom bap-style beats. He was christened the savior of his hometown's hip-hop scene and signature sound, co-signed by the likes of the RZA and DJ Premier, and offered a Roc Nation deal by Jay Z.
The next few years, however, served up a series of setbacks and tragedies, beginning with STEEZ's suicide in December 2012, just as Bada$$ and Pro Era were on the cusp of stardom. (All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$, in addition to referencing Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, calls back to STEEZ's 2012 tape AmeriKKKan Korruption.) And quickly, the boom bap revival narrative began to feel like an albatross.
His 2015 debut, B4.Da.$$, was released on indie label Cinematic Music Group and debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 moving 58,000 units its first week and 227,000 to date, according to Nielsen Music. He moved his mother out of the neighborhood where he grew up, which he raps about on "AmeriKKKan Idol" ("Tell mommy bigger place, yo, and we out / 'Cause Bed-Stuy a little unsafe for me now"). But despite genre-blending cuts like dance-pop bonus track "Teach Me" feat. Kiesza, the album did little to change the perception of Bada$$ as an old soul who couldn't -- or wouldn't -- move beyond his hometown's sound.
"That was such a frustrating feeling for me, because I felt like I had so much more to offer to the world but I felt like I couldn't be free with my music," he says. "The last two years were about experimenting. I wanted to break out of that box."
That desire led to the song "Devastated," an energetic track with a soaring hook that he debuted at Coachella in April 2016. The song, an obvious departure from his underground aesthetic, could have alienated his core fan base; instead, "Devastated" got Joey his first national radio airplay and became his first-ever gold single. "It happened to have a bouncy, pop-type of melody," says Jonny Shipes, CEO of Cinematic, who has worked with Joey since the MC was just 15, "but when you listen to what he's saying on the song, it's real shit."
In February 2016, when Bada$$ was beginning to assemble what would become All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$, he spoke with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. "He was like, 'If there's any advice I could give you, it would be, for your next album, just try to use just one or two producers,'" recalls Bada$$. "An hour later, [Tribe's] Phife Dawg passed away. I just couldn't explain why I got those gems from him on that day."
Bada$$ took the words of wisdom to heart. While B4.Da.$$ boasted production from DJ Premier, Hit-Boy and J Dilla, multi-instrumentalist 1-900 produced nearly all of All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$, with Pro Era's Kirk Knight handling the drums. "It's like night and day," says Shipes of the sonic leap between albums. "At this point, Joey understands how to make records, rather than just rapping really well."
During the past year Bada$$ also made his acting debut on the second season of USA's Mr. Robot alongside star Rami Malek. On the hacktivist drama, he plays Leon, a friend of Malek's Elliot Alderson with a shadowy past. Later in 2017, he'll begin filming the show's third season.
"I always loved acting, because Will Smith was one of my favorite people ever," he says. "But it was obvious that music was my calling. So I told myself, 'I'll revisit acting once I can leverage it off the music.' [Mr. Robot] was just perfect timing."
It was also the perfect role for another reason; show creator Sam Esmail wrote the character of Leon specifically for Joey after becoming enamored with his music videos. "I wrote the character as this sort of naive optimist who is trying to be uplifting to Elliot," Esmail says. "But Joey says it with such conviction that it feels like he's wise beyond his years. The guy has an on-screen presence that is very raw and honest."
Throughout his career, Bada$$ has remained staunchly independent, staying loyal to Shipes and Cinematic while rejecting the advances of major labels. But for all of his achievements -- he has toured the world both as a headliner and, last year, in support of ScHoolboy Q -- one of the supposed leaders of hip-hop's new generation is not a household name yet. Earlier this year, fellow independent MC Chance the Rapper took home three Grammys, ahead of headlining slots at festivals like Governors Ball and Firefly this summer. Bada$$ was in the building to witness Chance's coronation.
"Whether it was me first or him first," he says of longtime friend Chance, "it just inspires me when I see my peers excelling."
Still, Bada$$ has his eye on next year's Grammys, and he's not short on confidence. Earlier in March he was quoted saying he was "a better rapper than 2Pac," causing a minor social media uproar when the quote circulated out of context. But he remains convinced of the importance of All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$. "If I die right now, I know I made an impact on the world with this body of work," he says. "That's success to me."