Joey Bada$$’s Light Pack, and Boom Bap, Can’t Take Over New York
The Queens rapper returns with a stellar EP that tries to thrust boom bap back into the NYC spotlight.
Nostalgia in Black music is batting 1.000. It’s hard to believe that artists are yearning for the “good ol’ days,” especially when yesteryear is marred by racial injustice and the blood of its victims. But between two of the highest charting hip-hop and R&B releases of the last month, sanctifying the past is a commonly shared motif.
Teyana Taylor’s The Album, released in June, offered an emotionally revealing outlook on womanhood set to 1990s styled R&B production. It grooved its way towards the top of the Billboard 200 Chart and marked her first album to break the top 10, securing the no. 8 spot before dropping to its current no. 72 rank. The Album swayed to finger snaps and lukewarm bass, all while calling upon reference material from the likes of Lauryn Hill (“We Got Love”) and Erykah Badu (“Lowkey”).
A month later, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon grabbed the no. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, sending a jolt through hip-hop with a feature packed album that drew squarely from his litany of influences. None were more prevalent than Pop’s mentor and fellow New York rap savant 50 Cent. “Got It On Me,” a vivid reimagining of 50 Cent’s eye-opening 2003 hit “Many Men,” helped usher him to the rap throne, not unlike 50 nearly two decades ago.
Though both releases draw from musical relics, Pop Smoke is an interesting case study. He not only took the entire music world by storm, expanding the Brooklyn Drill scene to encompass the globe, but he also earned the battle tested moniker of “King of New York,” which has passed hands from Nas to Biggie to Jay-Z to 50 to Bobby Shmurda. His unique sound — a gutteral snarl mixed with squeaky adlibs and murderous intent — created a character that personified the city and its infatuation with rags to riches narratives.
But On July 17, another “King” of the city returned to lay claim to the throne. Joey Bada$$, returned to rap following a spotty three years since his last full length project. Dubbed the Light Pack, he dropped a three song collection that reintroduces hip-hop to the timeworn art of boom bap and jazz rap.
In its heyday in the 1990s, the genre was capable of moving its city of origin, with acts like A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, and even Miles Davis seamlessly reintegrating live instrumentation into hip-hop. Three decades later, Joey Bada$$’s commitment to honoring the genre helps to accentuate rap’s complexities, even if it fails to move the pop music needle.
“Mic check of the Gods,” Bada$$ spouts to introduce the EP. Since debuting in 2012 with his standout mixtape 1999, Joey B has been taking aim at the top of the rap game. He captivated audiences as a teenage hotshot with a penchant for lyrical clarity, a trait that ran counter to the rising presence of “mumble rappers” of the day.
Here, he continues to pressure those artists by doubling down on his philosophical style. On the Statik Selektah produced intro cut, he raps, “I’m like Mahatma Gandhi mixed Muhammad Ali/ Trapped in a rapper’s body/ Another old soul, in every lifetime you find me.” Though he’s seen Ali-like earnings across his 10-year career, Bada$$ portrays himself as rap’s sacrifice, trading mass appeal for self-recognition.
That perception holds true on both the Swizz Beatz and Sean & LV produced track “No Explanations” as well as on Statik Selektah’s “Shine.” The former, which features Pusha T and his unfettered love for white economics, plays out over a piano loop while Bada$$ explores the inner workings of his mind.
The latter mellows out over a timely sample of Roy Ayers “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” (Ayers just dropped a new studio album, Jazz is Dead 002 in June). Both tracks march toward Bada$$’s altruism. “Went from buildin’ with blocks to buildin’ the block/ Now I’m talkin’ with my pops about some buildings to cop,” he raps, defining his legacy less by the jewelry he wears and more by the change he creates.
Though the EP’s short track list lends itself to thematic cohesion, it begs the question: can boom bap ever be New York’s theme music? In rap, the spectacle is more important than the music. Tekashi 6ix9ine enthralls audiences with his technicolor hair and storage container videos, just as DJ Khaled layers adlibs on the intro of Drake songs to remind us he’s still kicking. Joey Bada$$, in a way, is almost too relatable. He’s the good guy we all aspire to be, unfazed by the depths of consumer culture or the latest trends.
If Pop Smoke is the soundtrack New York wants, Joey Bada$$’s The Light Pack is the soundtrack that it deserves. The two represent opposite ends of the Brooklyn music spectrum, with Pop scaling musical skyscrapers and Bada$$ building outwards from a local level. But unlike Pop Smoke, Joey Bada$$ isn’t aiming for the moon. He’s satisfied with shooting for your gray matter.