Between endless dead-end rumors and a subpar–and perhaps ominous–A Better Tomorrow as the only source of new music, it’s hard being an avid Wu-Tang Clan fan these days. And unless you’re a cartoonishly evil pharmaceutical executive named Martin Shkreli, Wu-Tang’s latest one-of-a-kind project is completely inaccessible. Enter Pro Era. They’re still a long ways from reaching the legendary Clan, but Joey Bada$$ and his compatriots have been spending the last few years bringing a mix of old-school New York and trendy contemporary style that’s proven to be equal parts infectious as it is satisfying. If you have the cosign of Obama’s daughter, you’re doing something right.
1999, Joey Bada$$’s debut mixtape, served as the first introduction to Pro Era for many. It’s a densely-packed project where the late Captain STEEZ, CJ Fly, and man of the hour, Joey Bada$$, connect contemporary culture to the backdrop of productions from yesteryear. Heavyweights like MF Doom and J Dilla join Pro Era in-house producer, Chuck Strangers, for a throwback sound that’s reminiscent of the past, yet keenly aware of current trends.
Much of Bada$$’s appeal can be attributed to this same paradox between topical pop influences and more traditional styles. “World Domination” starts with a Pinky and the Brain sample, “Waves” contains a 2pac passage, and Pokemon is referenced over a flip of the classic “Survival Tactics” by Styles of Beyond. 1999 comes from a place of nostalgia through the lens of the contemporary.
Bada$$ describes himself in “Summer Knights”: “He a child, but they treat him like a bigger man / Cause when the pen in his hand, they big ’em up like he Jigga man.” At 1999’s release, Joey Bada$$ was just 17; most of his bars concerned getting on Complex or wooing girls in the neighborhood. And yet, just as much time is spent on topics that shouldn’t concern kids–confronting racism, hustling for money or facing an uncertain future. The juxtaposition of childhood fantasies and adult realities is jarring for some, merely the grim truth for others.
Bada$$’s debut connects because growing up is universal. Puffing up your chest, geeking out over childhood icons, they’re checkpoints in most people’s lives. For Joey Bada$$ and many others, maturing early is also a necessity–to prove oneself, to survive. These deeper aspects, one’s that might not be a common thread for everyone, serve a different, but equally important role: providing insight into the realities of certain demographics–namely young Black boys.
1999 strings together pop culture references with old school beats, childish bravado with adult concerns, to create a layered statement on the state of youth in modern America. It just so happens to make for great music too.