Hip-hop heads who are still peddling that trapped-in-the-‘90s, boom-bap era of rap, have long wondered when and where the genre began to stray from its origins of sheer lyricism devoid of publicity stunts and gimmicks—a detraction in today’s hip-hop world. It’s a question that also stumps Brooklyn-based emcee, Joey Bada$$ on his balmy new mixtape, Summer Knights, where naturally there are more rhymes than frills.
“When did rap turn into a fashion show?” the 18-year-old up-and-comer bemuses on “Amethyst Rockstar,” an intoxicating, punchy track produced by underground cult favorite MF DOOM, whose influence extends beyond the riot-thrusts rhymes Joey artfully unbridles with Kirk Knight, his Pro Era comrade and producer whose hard-hitting bars almost steals the spotlight. You can also find traces of the enigmatic rap vet’s influence on “My Youth,” “Satellite,” and “Alowha,” where Joey spits his rhymes coolly, seemingly unfazed by the menacing beats circling the terrain.
Marked by mellow flows and blustery instrumentals, it’s clear that Joey is in no rush to make it to the finish line on the oft-delayed mixtape, the follow-up to his 2012 debut, 1999. On the previously released “Unorthodox,” produced by legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier, Joey rhymes brazenly about his quest to do things his way. “Fuck a rat race,” Joey barks before declaring feverishly, “I’m gonna spark it off unorthodox/Won’t sign to no major if no wager/Less than a three million offer off the top.” The twinkling Statik Selektah-produced “Word Is Bond” and the Alchemist-produced “Trap Door” are forthright, but ultimately leave all feathers unruffled whereas “95 ‘Til Infinity,” an evocative, Wu-Tang Clan-esque head-banger, finds Joey rhyming vehemently as if he was violently awakened from sleep.
Aside from pushy cuts like “95 ‘Til Infinity” and “Amethyst Rockstar,” there are moments when some of the songs on Summer Knights are so uniform that they end up feeling like one exhaustive freestyle with much ado about nothing. But whenever Joey’s delivery gets a little stagnant, he’ll quickly fill a track with a winning bit of introspection and his signature throwback ‘90s flow comes to rescue.
“Sometimes I just sit and prey/Said I don’t know, why do I live my life this way?/Why do I live my life this way?” he ponders in “Sit N Prey.” But it’s the bittersweet “#LongLiveSteelo,” a tribute song to Pro Era rapper Capital STEEZ—who committed suicide in December of last year—that puts Joey’s mastermind lyricism in plain view. The sentimental, sluggish troughs of the songs are backed by impulsive crunches. “I still feel your spirit in a room feel heavenly with the scent of ya/ We wasn’t on the issues but couldn’t help but notice your views/So many aspects of truth/In fact you let the past get to you,” the teenager raps. He delivers the lines with the kind of clarity that’s difficult to find among the fog of some of his elders, let alone his own peers.