At just 22, Joey Bada$$ is already an accomplished renaissance man. He regularly appears on the hit TV series Mr. Robot, runs a record label with his friends, and has two successful studio albums (and three mixtapes) behind him with a brand new one out this month. All Amerikkan Bada$ brings us Joey at his most political as he tackles being black in America -intertwined with the dark side of our nation's past and present - and Donald Trump.
The Brooklyn native sat down with us to chat about his evolution as an artist, from high school cool kid to an enlightened autodidact and teacher. As Joey's lyrics evolve, so does his sound, and he revealed big plans for the "secret catalogue" he has on deck.
Before our interview, the MC took a moment to read our creative director's editorial from our Break The Rules Issue.
PAPER: Take your time.
Joey: This really resonated with me and how I feel.
Just speaking on the important stuff - art and music in times like these. How important it is for us to speak up and speak out and educate the people and what's going on in the world.
Do you feel like that's what you were trying to do with this last album?
No, not trying, that's what I did.
There was a change in focus for you on this latest album.
Definitely. My goal is always to evolve. When it came to the musical aspect of this project, I really wanted to make it universal. To make it sound like it could be played for the world. That could be heard in places far past New York. I also wanted to make the lyrics as clear as possible. You can hear me word for word, you can understand exactly what I'm talking about, there's really not much to fly over your head. It's pretty much straightforward, straight to the point.
What do you feel like your responsibility as an artist is right now?
I think that the young artists have a slightly different responsibility than older artists. As a young artist, I know everything that's going on with my generation. I know the things they're into, I know what they like, I know what they love, I know what they lack, I know what they do too much of. I'm in the position where I can control to some degree the things that my generation will hear or be influenced by. A lot of kids listen to rappers more than they do their teachers or their parents. And so I feel very responsible to make sure I have a good message that will teach them something.
What kinds of things were you reading and listening to as you made this album?
So through the making of this album, I don't wanna say I was going through a phase, but I mean, I've been out of school for four or five years now, I don't have a "regular" job or anything, and school used to be something that would stimulate my mind when it came to my music. Learning things and gaining knowledge always inspired me to write. So, not being in school and not having a consistent source to gain information from made me really interested in teaching myself things, and just wanting to go and chase that knowledge.
The times that we're in really influenced the type of knowledge that I started chasing. I used to be into self-help and spirituality books, but during the process of this album I really went back to a lot of our past leaders and studied them. I was reading Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey for example, and then I started looking at lectures from leaders of today's time, like Dr. Lamar Johnson, Dr. Sebi, (rest in peace), and I started getting into their words and into their work and they started waking me up. It made me like, "Yo, I wanna share what I know now with my fanbase all over the world."
Do you feel like you're shifting how you're perceived by creating such a political album?
I was having a problem, I'll admit, with the way people perceived me. More people know my name and maybe have heard a song by me than they know who I am or what I look like or what I stand for. So with this album, I was definitely aiming to break barriers. When I first came out, I was labeled as a hip hop revivalist, boom bap revivalist, 90s Golden Age Boy and everything. Which were pretty good titles to be named for in this present climate of the rap world, where people are barely rapping.
But for me it was a box that people were putting me in, because I felt like people only expected me to do one thing, and I hate expectations. That was really affecting my sight and my energy. I was like, "I must grow." I must show people that this is not all I can do. It was important for me to show the world with this album that Joey Bada$ is here to do more than just rap exceptionally well. I'm here to be one of the greatest artists of all time.
So that being said, what's your favorite track off the album?
And why is that?
So "Devastated" was the song that you could apply to today's time. And it's more in line with what's going on now. But "Temptation" feels both timely and timeless, and I can't put a genre label on it. I can't just call it hip hop, and that was an accomplishment for me: a genre-crossing song that people from all walks of life could feel. Any time that thing comes on it just makes me feel like, "Wow, I can't believe I made this song."
That was my favorite song too.
Where did the album name come from?
I've always been one to play with my name and my album titles. This was between two titles, I won't tell you the other because it's actually gonna be the title of my next album. But it was really about the direction the music was going. I had this other title that was more introspective, just me and how I feel truly inside, and this music was more about what's going on with the world and everyone else. So I just thought that this was more fitting. I think this is what the world needed right now. It's also inspired by my brother Capital Steez's first project, AmeriKKKan Korruption and obviously Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted.
What's your writing process like?
It was just me approaching the microphone, and after I got the beat and felt the vibe, then I literally just spoke into the mic how I felt. And everything that was going on during the process of making this album shaped that. I would turn on the TV, and aw, Freddie Gray. I turn on the TV, Donald Trump just won the presidential election like aw, fuck. All the things that were affecting my mood and my vibe, I put it in the music. A song like "Land of the Free" was something that I definitely did take the time to write down. But something like "Temptation" or "For My People" is just me feeling that beat and then just speaking how I feel.
What was it like to perform "Land of the Free" on Colbert?
That was magical. We didn't even know we were doing Colbert 'till three days prior. They just came out of nowhere, but they were so cooperative and into working with us and making sure our show ran smoothly. Sometimes you just get booked, and you come and you perform. But with them it felt really genuine, like they really wanted us to be there. They wanted us to do that song, too. I originally was gonna do "Temptation," but they were like, "No, we need 'Land of the Free.'" It was just perfect, like okay, bet.
They saw the vision.
Were you pumped to work with Schoolboy Q and J.Cole on this album?
It was a dope experience, 'cause this is the first time I really reached out to bigger artists and asked them to be a part of my work. So the fact that I was so successful in that really was satisfying. Schoolboy Q and Cole are two of my favorite artists in the game at present time, so that made me really happy.
Who would your dream collaboration be with?
Daft Punk. I love Daft Punk. Eventually my music is going to go there too. Daft Punk's sound was a sound that I always loved. I can't really explain it. You know their song "Something About Us?" That's my favorite song ever. My number one favorite. And just the vibe of that music, the melancholy feel, the mood - I aspire to make music like that, sonics like that. But even their more uptempo stuff, like Discovery, the groovy house vibe, that's the vibe I've always been into that people don't know. When I used to make beats, I made beats that sound like Daft Punk shit. So I just really think that we could make something really, really tight. I love Daft Punk.
Do you feel like you've ever been boxed in with the type of music you've been able to make?
So if "Temptation" is your favorite song and you love Daft Punk, what has kept you from moving in that direction artistically?
Okay yes, I definitely, definitely think so. As an artist, we're gonna have music out there that everybody knows us for. But we're always gonna have that secret catalogue of music that the world may never even hear until we think the time is right. I definitely have those folders of music that I've created. You know what I'm saying? Back to Daft Punk, there's this one song I have on a Kaytranada beat that's so funky and got that house vibe, and any time I play it, for women specifically, they go crazy for it. That's a side of Joey that people aren't used to, and I want to introduce them to that, but I just felt like I had to do this first. It was the time for this.
The music that I put out there holds me back to a certain degree, but it's a conscious decision. Like, "Alright, I have to know when to introduce the world to certain sides of myself." Because they just might not accept it at certain times. I knew they would accept this album. You just can't not accept it. It's what's going on, it's what you need to hear right now. But I definitely got that folder of music where it's like, strictly a whole project just for women. And that's the direction that I want to move in eventually, but I'm just trying to find the right way to do it and the right time without sacrificing my fanbase.
You gotta build that relationship first.
Exactly, so I'm just gonna do it gradually. I definitely don't enjoy going to my shows all the time and it's like seventy percent men. There be girls there, but I'm just like damn, can we get a better balance? You know what I'm saying? [laughing]
Women are the tastemakers. Do you interact with your fans a lot?
Definitely. I'm an in-person type. I don't like texting and stuff like that. Yesterday I had an album signing and I got to interact with every single person that came. And those moments are always special to me, because then the fans come up to me like, "Yo, you don't know what you did for me," and that's something I always think about.
When I see fans in the street, I always try to do my best to just be a genuine, humble person and just to honor whatever it is they want to do in that moment, like take a photo or something, because as an artist you'll never know the moment when your music first affected that person. I remember before I was Joey, and I used to feel unmotivated or uninspired until I'd play a certain song that resonated with me and made me believe again. So since those moments are something that I can never see, I just try to do my best to show my appreciation for my fans.
I can only imagine the type of love and attention you get when you're here in New York, your hometown.
Definitely. It's cool though. When I was in school I was the popular kid, so now it's like the world is my school and I'm just walking around as the cool kid. And I can still sit at any lunch table I want.
Image via Neil Rasmus/BFA.com