At times it feels like Joey Bada$$ has been around for a decade already. The 20-year-old Brooklyn MC caught the hip-hop world's attention in mid-2012 with his fantastic debut mixtape 1999 and the free-spirited visual of his first single "Survival Tactics" with Capital STEEZ and has been building steadily from there, with a Pro Era crew mixtape at the end of that year and a 2013 followup tape, Summer Knights, 18 months ago. But what seemed like the makings of a meteoric rise, has been interrupted repeatedly along the way with personal tragedies which have delayed and altered Joey's official debut LP.

But now at long last the album, B4.Da.$$, is finally here, and he's very clearly not the same rapper he was as a 17-year-old upstart. Back then he was the young kid from Flatbush rhyming over Dilla and DOOM beats, building his name steadily with Pro Era and hitting hip-hop in the head with his old school aesthetic and New York City sensibilities. And it's not like he's abandoned that sound on B4.Da.$$; instead, the soundscape is updated and more diverse as Joey looks to emerge from the boom bap pigeon hole and test the waters in different genres.

The dark, murky reggae of the Chronixxx-assisted and Hit-Boy-produced "Belly Of The Beast" operates as a nod to his Carribbean roots, while the excellent "Escape 120," a late addition to the album that features 18-year-old Atlanta MC Raury, goes hand-in-hand with bonus cut "Teach Me" as tentative steps into the electronic music sphere. Yet the spine of the album is crafted from a tighter, more intense backdrop, employing Pro Era members Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers amid beats from J Dilla, Freddie Joachim and The Roots, with cuts from two of the best to ever do it, DJ Premier and Statik Selektah, tying the whole project together. Joey's flow, which got darker and grittier on Summer Knights, is more focused, and his carefully selected features—BJ The Chicago Kid, Maverick Sabre and Dyemond Lewis, in addition to Chronixxx and Raury—add touches to the edges of his songs rather than overpowering them.

And then, at the center of everything, is the essence of what a debut album should be: a young MC finding his sound, building his confidence and telling his story. It just so happens that this story is a lot more personal than the "fuck bitches, get money, do drugs, buy diamonds" aesthetic of so many of his peers in the rap game. Cuts like "Paper Trail$, "On And On" and "Black Beetles" delve into Joey's inner thought process, addressing his upbringing, the death of his friend and Pro Era co-captain Capital STEEZ and the reality of the underside of the rap game for a young artist, respectively. "Hazeus View" is another reminder that Joey can turn any memorable line into a workable hook. "Curry Chicken," the final track on the album, is an ode to his mother that's as close to boom bap as the album gets. Throughout, Joey laces each track with strong, purposeful verses that illustrate what's going on inside his head.

There are criticisms to be made; it's definitely long, for one, and the consistency of the album's vibe will probably turn some people away. But either way, B4.Da.$$ should be seen as a huge step forward and a platform for Joey to progress even further. —Dan Rys

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