Joey Bada$$ – “B4.Da.$$”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Big Dusty” “Like Me”

The best thing about great hip-hop is how quickly and effectively it’s musicians can respond to the world around them. “B4.Da.$$” (brilliantly pronounced as “Before Da Money”) follows just weeks behind D’Angelo’s political comeback, “Black Messiah,” and J. Cole’s introspective “2014 Forest Hills Drive .” It’s a little heayv to say that Joey Bada$$ is responding to the world of increasing racial tension around him, considering he’s been prepping this album for two years. But it is more serious, more proud and cognizant than his previous mixtapes.

The album’s best tracks deal with familiar themes – his growing up in Brooklyn. It’s unfortunate that the album, after being prepped for so long, had to come out so close to the thematically similar but lesser “Forest Hills,” and we have to hope it doesn’t get shoved under J. Cole’s bigger name. Opener “Save the Children” and following interlude “Greenbax” handle the toughness of making money as a kid in New York, while closer “Curry Chicken” sees the complete arc, of Joey dreaming of his forthcoming exquisite dinner on a plane – after he’s made money and left the city. “Like Me” is noteworthy, too, a sadly optimistic song about hoping to make it out of the city. “O.C.B.” has an intriguing chorus which rhymes the title with ‘O.C.D,’ ‘ODB’ and ‘OMG,’ over its four lines. Not only is it a really clever quadruple-rhyme, it’s also a meat look at how Bada$$ is a throwback rapper – like ODB in an OMG age.

After a few tracks, it becomes pretty obvious to the listener that the album is as much about the music and the flow as it is the lyrics. Bada$$ is a rhythmic rapper, and his flow is largely impeccable (especially on “Hazeus View”). It’s easier to pick up than the lyrics, which sometimes get swept up in the music (although, ironically, the album’s hottest verse comes from Raury on the track “Escape 120”). And since this album has throwback qualities, that’s not a problem. The music itself is often reminiscent of old school hip-hop, with more instrumentation than just beats. “Belly of the Beast” starts with a sudden string crescendo, and “O.C.B.” has a background low brass, at times. Production from J Dilla and the Roots help give the throwbacks an authentic feel. Although the music isn’t always the focus, Bada$$ pulls it off with consistent honesty.

The biggest fault of the album, and the only one that isn’t easily overlooked, is it’s runtime. At over an hour, there’s more crammed into the album than we need. Few songs stand out from the others, and it feels like it was designed that way, so we just get too much. It could stand to jettison three or four songs and it would be just as strong. For a debut album, it’s too bloated. But otherwise, it’s an album that shows progress for the already hyped Joey Bada$$. He pushed the album back so he could gain some notoriety and cred, and the maturity shows (plus, he waited until his 20th birthday to release it. Happy birthday!). “B4.Da.$$” isn’t going to be one of the best hip-hop albums of the year (especially when we’re staring down “View From the 6,” “RTJ3” and whatever Kanye’s planning), but Bada$$ has proven himself as one of the better young rappers in the scene. It’s the first in a year that promises new albums from A$ap Rocky and Chance the Rapper. 2015’s off to a fairly strong start, let’s hope it keeps up.

-By Andrew McNally

J. Cole – “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Fire Squad” “No Role Modelz”

J. Cole wrote “magnum opus” all over this album. This is the album he envisioned as leaving his mark on rap, his childhood-based album, his “Here’s what New York is like” album. It’s not that, but it’s at least a solid release, largely devoid of some of his clunky lyrics of the past.

Defense seems to be the strategy on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It’s J. Cole’s album to lose. This is probably the most apparent in the lack of credited guests. He dominates every song, and although other voices do drop in, they’re uncredited and not the big names you’d expect. The album’s overarching theme is childhood and youth, as earlier this year J. Cole bought the house he grew up in, after it was foreclosed on in 2003. He defends this, he defends New York City, he defends his own position in rap. But the most effective is his defense of race, one of the few areas where J. Cole has been distinguished as of late. He gives a Ferguson mention on the sprawling finale, “Note to Self,” reminiscent of him being one of the first entertainers to make a visit to the town. On “Fire Squad,” he raps about white people taking over rock and rap, and how he’ll try to crack a smile when Iggy wins big at the Grammy’s. And on “No Role Modelz,” he raps, “I came fast like 911 in a white neighborhood.” At the album’s best, it’s provocative and button-pushing, a step forward for someone still looking for his place, and certainly forgiveness for Nas.

At the album’s worst, though, it falls into blander hip-hop lyrics and beats. “A Tale of Two Citiez” is particularly clunky song, just a self-serving boastful sex song. There are others on the album, and even better tracks like “Fire Squad” fall victim to some cliche moments. The album doesn’t do enough to bring in some cliche elements into other more, progressive ideas. Most of the album has surprisingly melodic and dense music, but trashy lyrics don’t always fit against them, and it gets jarring. J. Cole’s clearly working on tightening up his ideas and sound, and he’s not there yet, so an album of this stature may have jumped the gun.

“2014 Forest Hills Drive” isn’t going to be remembered as being on the same level as the albums that inspired it. It has some worthy songs, some piercing lyrics and a lot of great music (even the intro has compelling music behind it), but it’s all a little too messy so far. J. Cole doesn’t have the experience to pull this album off yet – just listen to “Note to Self,” the nearly 15-minute, improvised finale, where he namedrops everyone who helped make the album, and continuously tells the listener they don’t need to sit through the credits. It’s a big idea – challenging the listener to keep going. But, it’s also supposed to be fun, and we’re not in on it. J. Cole is coming towards mastering the formula, but it hasn’t quite all come together yet. Challenging me to go on was bold; I gave it a few minutes before I stopped.

-By Andrew McNally