Revisiting Joey’s classic debut on its eighth anniversary.
The image is unforgettable: Two teenagers, wearing goofy looking ski masks, are standing in an empty New York City subway station. As a chaotic, old school sounding beat builds behind them, featuring sirens and bomb explosion sounds and anything else that might inspire feelings of anarchy, the words “Survival Tactics” appear between them in big yellow letters.
Suddenly, we’re thrust into a uniquely new version of something we’ve seen a million times before: an aggressive, angry, lyrically dense, undeniably ‘90s-sounding rap song.
As he drops non-stop quotables and double-entendres with easy confidence, close-ups on Joey Badass’ youthful face indicate that this is not a long lost member of the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, it seems pretty clear he wasn’t even born yet when Enter The Wu-Tang was released.
It would have been easy at the time to write off the song as some sort of old school hip-hop fan fiction. But the execution was too good. The talent was undeniable. And the mystery surrounding a kid who had just turned 17 years old a month earlier releasing something like this was captivating.
A few months later, the full mixtape containing “Survival Tactics” arrived. 1999 was an instant sensation. After hearing the song “Waves,” Jay-Z immediately tried to sign the fellow Brooklyn-ite. Joey said no. “I don’t want to be signed to him, I want to be him,” he would say later.
Listening to 1999 at the time, that felt possible. Anything felt possible for him. The lyricism was packed with so many clever one-liners, so many complex rhyme schemes and double-entendres, and so much honesty and vulnerability, that it was impossible not to think about how Joey might have stacked up against the legendary ’90s rappers he was invoking.
Some critics criticized him for drowning in his influences. But to characterize the project as a watered down copycat is lazy and inaccurate.
Sonically, the project doesn’t break any new ground. But he’s not exactly copying any one artist in particular throughout either. The mixtape may stick to one overarching sound, but there’s more variety within that sound than people give credit for. His flow is just as competent on smoother tracks like “Waves” and “Snakes” as it is going scorched-Earth on “Survival Tactics” and “Killuminati.”
1999 is a celebration of an era. A love letter to boom-bap. It takes the best aspects of some of the most revered rap albums ever and blends them into something familiar but fresh.
Sure, anyone could have created a love letter to old school rap. But a love letter is only as good as the sincerity and conviction of the man with the pen. In this case, this was no gimmick. Joey was making music that came naturally to him, and it made an impact on the game.
The entire “Beast Coast” movement flooded into the spotlight behind the hype of 1999. It gave major momentum to a revivalist movement in hip-hop, a young genre that usually rallies around what’s fresh and new.
But there’s much more here than just an old school sonic palette, a bunch of slick one-liners, and a charismatic young star.
When you dig deeper, at its core, this is a beautiful portrait of a confused, intelligent kid trying to will himself in the right direction. He sees negative outcomes plaguing the neighborhood and society around him, and he’s desperately trying to use his music as a tool to create something positive for himself.
On “Hardknock,” he raps bluntly about his need to change his own lifestyle to live up to his potential and avoid the mass incarceration he sees around him. On “Righteous Minds,” he discusses how hard it is to live righteously when you know you could meet a senseless death at any moment. And on the deeply personal “Waves,” he lays out his incredibly ambitious hopes and dreams, but only after describing the sad backdrop that makes him so desperate to shoot for the moon in the first place.
His observations are incredibly keen for his age, but they’re also often incomplete. His worldview is broad and lacks experience. His level of skill as a rapper and lyricist was more developed at the time than his depth as a thinker.
And I believe that’s actually a major part of the charm and enduring legacy of the tape.
Take this line from the J Dilla-produced song Snakes: “Just like a relative, marijuana sedatives/Got me thinkin’ I should put a bomb right where the Senate is/Cause they corruptin’ the youth/We ain’t inductin’ the truth/Lookin’ at the President like yo we must be nothin’ to you.”
The social commentary Joey comes up with is well-written, well-rapped, and easy for younger listeners to latch on to. When you look at it critically though, it’s not as deep as it sounds in your headphones.
But if you think about it in the context of a frustrated 17-year old kid who knows the system is built against him but isn’t entirely sure how yet, it has much more power.
We’ve all been that pensive teenager whose worldview is developing fast, but not fast enough to fully understand the strong feelings and intuitions we have on the world we see around us.
That was Joey’s gift. He was blessed with so much wit, charisma, and ambition at such a young age, that he appealed to the desire within us all to see the world as an adult when we were still just a kid.
Joey has gone on to reach great heights in his career over the years, but to his biggest fans, 1999 will always be frozen in time. It can’t be recreated. It’s not only nostalgic for the era of hip-hop it invokes sonically, but also the era in all of our lives between adolescence and adulthood that it channels so authentically.
And on that note, I leave you with an epic one-liner from each song, because how can I not?
“It’s been a minute, since they seen a style with no gimmicks.” — Summer Knights
“Since ’9-5 momma been workin’ 9–5.” — Waves
“I got sick of class, started makin’ classics.” — FromDaTomb$
“These ain’t even punchlines no more, I’m abusin’ tracks/Leavin’ instrumentals blue and black.” — Survival Tactics (Capital Steez)
“Ironic how I’m killin’ this shit until they bury me/My volume is going in depth with longevity.” — Killuminati (Capital Steez)
“I take the competition out commission with my composition.” — Hardknock
“They like ‘yo Joey you rude,’ I’m like if only you knew/I’m only in school for cosmology that’s why I act as lonely as you.” — World Domination
“Whole thing played out like magic and it’s kinda weird/It’s like I did a trick and you won’t reappear.” — Pennyroyal
“I’m here to stay like tattoos on statues.” — Funky Ho’$
“Traded in my Nikes for a new mic, I guess it’s safe to say he sold soles for his new life.” — Daily Routine
“I passed the dutch to the left and it started to make sense/It’s funny how I see it more straight when I’m bent.” — Snakes
“So label me as heartless, it’s not that I don’t care/I just learned to use my heart less.” — Don’t Front (CJ Fly)
“What if I just ain’t act right? What if I pack crack white with my sack tight, join the gat fight?… And give my friends the back knife cause that’s life.” — Righteous Minds
“They said love would come knockin’ at my door, well I guess lust must’ve wrung.” — Where It’$ At
“See God made three Bigs, two Pacs, but he only made one (Pro) Era.” — Suspect