Word Is Bond: The Double and Triple Meanings of Joey Bada$$’s ‘B4.DA.$$’

Like every utterance that passes through Joey Bada$$’s lips, the title of his debut album, B4.DA.$$ — read “Before the Money” as well as “Bada$$” — is double or triple meant. It’s a statement album: he wants you to know who he is and where he came from. But it’s also a promise. If everything goes right, this album will document Bada$$’s frame of mind precisely before he makes a bunch of money. The idea seems to have worked. Last week, the album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts, placing it ahead of all other rap releases, including new records by Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco. Given, too, that Malia Obama recently posted a selfie featuring a Pro Era T-shirt, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before Bada$$ gets the $3 million deal he’s been seeking — he famously won’t sign to a major label for less.

Here’s the thing, though: Joey Bada$$ hates money, or at least he’s deeply ambivalent about it. This much has been apparent since his 2012 mixtape 1999, first released when he was only 17-years-old. Steeped in Occupy-era NYC politics (just watch the video for “Survival Tactics”), the mixtape maligns Wall Street, consumerism, and several other instantiations of the almighty dollar, somehow without caving to the foibles of conscious rap. Like many rare artists of pure language — and make no mistake about it, Joey Bada$$’s linguistic gifts are immense — he’s more concerned with the power of the word. (“Word is bond,” he quotes from Wu-Tang on Summer Knights.) His best songs recall the phrase coined by Masta Ace and later used by both members of Clipse: letter to the better. His self-worth is justified less by money and more by the delivery of complex, letter-like verses that allude to his heroes — the big three: Nas, Jay Z, and, most of all, Biggie — by transcribing the life and culture of his city into language. Nowhere is this more apparent than on 1999’s “Hardknock,” a song that literally begins with a prison letter and ends with perhaps the greatest rap verse ever recorded by a teenager.

If rap status were adjudicated on the basis of lyrical talent, Joey Bada$$ would have nothing to worry about. Only it isn’t. And so for three years — the new album was released on his birthday — Bada$$ has been forced to reconcile himself to a rapidly changing industry marred by an increasingly bankrupt value system, one where his best option has been to remain independent (with a loyal but modest fanbase). To complicate things further: since the release of 1999, Bada$$ has seen the suicide of one of his closest friends, an array of minor beefs, and, I might also add, the release of Yeezus. I mention this only because Kanye’s album seemed to nullify (once and for all) the infamous “boom-bap” production preferred by Bada$$ and the rest of Pro Era.

The ratio of bullshit to money, in other words, has not been favorable. “Then came the money through a plug,” Bada$$ writes on the new album, “it’s a shame this ain’t enough.” The first three tracks of B4.DA.$$ form a loose narrative. The album begins with the excellent “Save the Children,” which features a confident Bada$$ gliding over a sermonic sample that suggests that we should, well, save the children. The introlude, “Greenbax,” slyly picks up where the opener leaves off, with actual children boasting: “selling candy, getting money, making the greenbacks.” If it isn’t obvious here that Bada$$ is leveraging a serious complaint against late capitalist culture (he laughs off being called a Marxist), then everything becomes pellucidly clear on “Paper Trail$,” the album’s third and best track. “Cash ruins everything around me,” Bada$$ mopes before sing-songing, “It’s the dollar, dollar bill/ It’s the dollar bill that kills y’all.”

Then he follows it up with another amazing letter. “Piece of Mind” — which alludes to Nas’ “One Love,” a prison letter song from Illmatic — begins with a recording of Bada$$ talking to his friend who is presumably in jail; by the end of the second verse, the track has become a love letter to NYC, with sidelong references even to competitor rappers like Schoolboy Q. The nearly narrative quality of the track is so welcoming and enjoyable that it has almost an adverse effect on the remainder of the record. It’s a curious problem that the best disciples of Biggie and Nas, like Pusha T, too often shy away from narrative. If I have one major complaint about B4.DA.$$, it’s the lack of storytelling.

One complaint I don’t have: the production doesn’t bother me overmuch. In almost every review of a Joey Bada$$ record, you’ll find the critic grandstanding about the life or death of “boom-bap” production. On B4.DA.$$, this discussion doesn’t really register. From DJ Premier to Statik Selektah, nearly every producer on the album manages to deepen and broaden the decidedly throwback sound, which is routinely solid if never mind-blowing. The one question mark is Chuck Stranger’s insane, swirling “Escape 120,” which almost sounds like a Prodigy track. I honestly can’t tell you whether it’s amazing or terrible.

No, B4.DA.$$ is not Illmatic; nor are conditions in rap favorable for such an album. And, anyway, Bada$$’s 1999 was already shocking enough for a debut. It’s clear, though, that this album represents a major progression for Joey Bada$$. After the suicide of his friend Capital Steez — the young and talented if (justifiably) paranoiac rapper who provided Pro Era with much of its symbology — Bada$$ shifted to a more aggressive flow that betrayed his youth. On Summer Knights in particular, the pain caused by his friend’s death plainly manifested as anger. This is no longer the case. B4.DA.$$ represents an empathetic step forward, one where the most complex themes in rap — race, money, friendship — rub shoulders in every track.