Creating an album about contemporary American issues that is genuine, yet still accessible, is no easy feat. However, Joey Bada$$ manages to do just that with poise on his latest offering, All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$. A founding member of New York hip-hop collective Pro Era, Joey first gained recognition for his debut solo mixtape, 1999, and subsequently released an additional mixtape, Summer Knights, and a studio album, B4.DA.$$.
Joey has been known for his more classical approach to hip-hop, utilizing hard-hitting beats, explosive delivery, and clever wordplay reminiscent of ‘90s recordings. So when Joey released his first single from the album almost a year ago, some fans were alienated when they received an uplifting track with strings, a sung chorus, and a bouncing beat in the form of “Devastated.” Clearly a departure from his earlier work, the single served as a good indicator for the direction the young 22-year-old artist’s music would take on his sophomore project.
The album opens up with “Good Morning AmeriKKKa,” a track that offers a small taste of what’s to come as Joey delivers a single, minute-and-a-half-long verse that touches on the subjects of freedom, police brutality, and the general oppression of Black people in “AmeriKKKa.”
This is propelled by a simple bass line, claps, and a beat that gradually quickens. “America my masseuse massagin’ my back/Tryna act like she ain’t gonna do me like Pratt/Geronimo, take a leap and lay flat.” In this line, Joey personifies America as a masseuse and refers to Geronimo Pratt, a key member of the Black Panther Party who was framed of a kidnapping and murder by the FBI. He wonders if the country will target him as well, and plays with the word Geronimo to describe leaping away from his betrayer.
The intro flows seamlessly into the next track, “For my People.” In its chorus, Joey sings, “This for my people tryna’ stay alive and just stay peaceful, so hard to survive a world so lethal, who will take a stand and be our hero?” In his verses, Joey essentially asserts that he is striving to be just that — a hero who uses his artistry to enact change. A synth melody is present throughout, along with a satisfying saxophone sample. The track works well largely because of Joey’s surprisingly pleasant singing voice.
This is followed by “Temptation,” which is the first real standout track on the album. It is framed by a recording of Zianna Oliphant, a nine-year-old girl from North Carolina who spoke at a council meeting after the death of Keith Lamont Scott, who was fatally shot by a police officer. She says, “We are Black people and we shouldn’t have to feel like this. We shouldn’t have to protest because you are treating us wrong. We do this because we need to and we have rights.”
In the chorus, Joey pleads with his Lord to help him overcome the selfish temptations of a young man so that he can focus on what’s important — fighting for the Black community. The song exemplifies what is great about the album overall; it successfully gets that message across in an accessible way. Sonically, the track employs brass and strings to great effect, specifically a catchy electric guitar riff.
Next is “Land of the Free,” the second single from the album, which was released on January 20th, the day of Trump’s inauguration as well as Joey’s birthday. The chorus of the track is hard-hitting: “In the land of the free, it’s full of freeloaders/Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors/They disorganized my people, made us all loners/Still got the last names of our slave owners.”
In his own analysis of the lyrics, Joey explains how his two family names, Scott and Virginie, are Scottish and French in origin, remnants of the slave owners of his ancestors. Angelic “oohs” and “aahs” punctuate the track, as well as yet another enjoyable guitar riff.
“Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss AmeriKKKa)” has Joey personifying America once again, this time as a woman who is abusive in every conceivable way. The comparison is powerful because, like a long-term abusive relationship, Joey recognizes that America has wronged him, yet stays regardless because she is all that he knows.
However, in another highlight of the album, “Babylon,” Joey shares his desire leave America behind. Rastafarians use the word Babylon to describe where their ancestors were displaced to as a result of slavery and colonialism, and is obviously being used to refer to America in the track.
Some of the most impactful lyrics on the album are found here, undoubtedly fueled by Joey’s emphatic delivery: “Fuck the system and the government, you fuckers not/ Protectin’ and servin’/You more like damagin’ and hurtin’/And letting off shots ‘til you motherfuckers certain/He ain’t breathin’, you made it clear/Fuck your breath, nigga’ don’t even deserve air/Don’t even deserve shit, don’t even deserve nothin’/If black lives really mattered, you niggas would do somethin’.”
Joey is unapologetic when describing the acts of violence committed against the Black community by law enforcement, and in a later verse calls out the federal government as well: “Nowaday they hangin’ us by a different tree/Branches of the government I can name all three.” The track also features Jamaican reggae artist Chronixx who sings a soulful chorus.
Speaking of features, the two major features on the album are J. Cole and ScHoolboy Q, who appear on the tracks “Legendary” and “Rockabye Baby,” respectively. Interestingly, the tracks adopt the sound and usual subject matter of the artist featured. “Legendary” is an introspective track with a simple piano refrain and cascading brass instrumentation that focuses on fame, faith, and family.
“Rockabye Baby,” the third single and only real “banger” on the album, features piano played in a minor key and deals with subjects ranging from past gang affiliations, to the role of successful Black individuals in society.
The last track on the album, “AmeriKKKan Idol,” serves as a worthy ending to a fantastic record. The first verse deals with Joey himself, as he asserts that despite attempts of subversion by the government, he will continue to use his artistry to spread a message while simultaneously ascending to the top of the rap game. In his last verse, Joey details our government’s plan to divide the nation and systematically eliminate and incarcerate Black people. He stresses that gang violence only speeds up this process and calls on his listeners to educate themselves and be wary of what they are being told.
All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ is a strong project, and is well-worth an involved, contemplative listen. Some minor complaints include the fact that the instrumentation on many of the tracks is similar, and that there is a lack of any significant introspection on Joey’s part. There are also some weaker tracks that were not discussed, including “Ring the Alarm” and “Super Predator.”
However, once again, crafting an earnest, thematic album about America that is a joy to listen to is surely an achievement, especially at the age of 22. Although he ends his album prophesying that “eventually, we’ll all be doomed/Real, real, real soon,” the future does look bright for the young artist.