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“I’ve Never Wanted to Be a Rapper So Much in My Life”: Joey Bada$$ Is Back and All Grown Up

The Brooklyn MC discusses his album ‘2000,’ his five-year gap between projects, and his journey with therapy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the intro to his classic 2012 mixtape 1999, Joey Bada$$ offers something of a faux mea culpa: “Sorry I kept y’all waiting,” he says at the close of “Summer Knights.” Bada$$ was 17 at the time, and he wasn’t actually apologizing at the outset of his debut. Rather, he seemed to be highlighting that a certain type of listener was hungry for what he was offering: a kind of rap-purist fever dream, which stylistically drew on early Jay-Z and Illmatic-era Nas and laid it over MF DOOM and Beatnuts instrumentals. And Bada$$ was right—1999 was not only critically lauded, it also helped launch a career that’s produced a platinum single, placements in Calvin Klein ads, and promising acting turns on shows like Mr. Robot and Raising Kanan, a prequel to 50 Cent’s hit series Power.

Last month, Bada$$ returned with 2000, the spiritual successor to 1999. And while the project arrived a half-decade after his most recent—2017’s politically tinged All-Amerikkkan Bada$$—the Brooklyn MC had no interest in even feigning an apology this time. “I can take five years off ’cause my shit is timeless,” he says at the top of 2000 opener “The Baddest.” By and large, he’s right again. With sample-heavy production from the likes of Statik Selektah and Chuck Strangers and features from Westside Gunn and JID, 2000 will scratch an itch for listeners hoping for a back-to-basics rap. Which is to say, the type of person who first fell for 1999.

This doesn’t mean that Bada$$ hasn’t grown in the past decade or that he’s playing off cheap nostalgia on 2000, however. A father now, Bada$$ approaches many of the songs here with a heightened sense of maturity. On “Head High,” he discusses his relationship with the late XXXTentacion, and on “Survivors Guilt” he explores the death of his Pro Era compatriot Capital Steez and how we talk about mental health. His sonic palette is refined as well: the sublime, romantic “Show Me,” which samples beloved indie trio Men I Trust, may be the best song of Bada$$’s career. The precocious teen with an old soul is a man now, and he’s making music largely reflective of that.

1999 was about a boy growing up in Brooklyn, doing what he loves with his friends, just trying to make a way,” Bada$$ says via Zoom. “2000 is that same boy, but on the other side of the fence. He’s a man now. He’s done made it, and this is his success story.”

Bada$$ caught up with The Ringer in mid-August to talk about 2000, his return to releasing albums, and the state of New York rap. And while he’s not apologizing for his extended time away, he wants you to know it’s not likely to happen again.

You took five years between albums and, as I understand it, you were recording consistently the whole time. It wasn’t like you were just taking a break from music. So, why the lengthy gap?

It was a number of reasons. One, I had just come off the heels of a politically charged album, and it was the first time I really devoted a project to that direction. So, there was a lot of pressure from that. It was like, “Shit, do I have to keep doing that or can I move on?” So, the decision became, “All right. I don’t want people to just think I’m trying to preach to them.” I wanted to figure out a direction opposite from that. That took some time, Experimenting a lot, trying out different things, different sounds. Then the pandemic happened, but even before the pandemic, I had my daughter.

Also, every other album I’ve made before this one, I knew exactly what I was going to create before I created it, and I created that based on this idea or this direction that I chose. This one, I was kind of just going with the wind, and that’s something that I would probably never do again, because I feel like it dragged me out. It led me along for a long time. I still had to make the decision in the end on what direction to go and what title to choose, because ultimately that was going to shape the body of work.

That’s interesting because I think with the natural connection between the titles, between 1999 and 2000, a lot of fans would assume that you went into this knowing that you wanted to do that, but that wasn’t the case.

No, that wasn’t the case at all. You see, 2000 was always an idea that I had. But it was just kind of an idea that was at the back of my mind like: “That could be cool, but I don’t know if I’m really serious. Let me put that at the back of the closet.” Once I came to the realization of the direction and how I wanted it to sound, I decided, “Wait, what’s this thing doing back here? This actually fits this. It’s time for 2000. Here it is right here.”

Do you think that the hiatus put more pressure on this record for you in any way?

Absolutely. Every year that went by, I felt more and more pressure that I had to do something spectacular. The way people were looking at it like, “Yo, he’s made us wait five years, so he must be working on something crazy,” when really, it’s, “It just took me five years to figure out what I was working on.” There were a few different projects that I had started to create and then scrapped and started a new one, scrapped it, started a new one. You know what I mean? So, it was definitely pressure from that, especially knowing that it’s like, “All right, it’s been three years now, and I just started a new album.”

But at the end of the day, I just realized, “Yo, it’s five years. These people just want your product. They just want your music. They miss your energy. They miss your essence.” When I started to look at it like that, it took a lot of that pressure off of my shoulders, and I began to just ease into what became this reintroduction to Joey Bada$$.

You’ve had a fairly successful acting run the past few years. Some fans might have been worried that you were maybe taking some time off from making music because acting was going to be the main thing from here on out. Was that ever a consideration for you?

Never, not even one time. For me, music has always been my first love. I can’t speak too much on the future, but throughout the past five years, that thought has never crossed my mind. I’ve seen people pushing me in the direction to think like that, but I was still focused on music, and I also knew that was coming from a place where these people hadn’t heard me in a long time and then I was also talented on screen.

If anything, it really gave me more confidence in music, because it lifted some of that pressure off of my shoulders, where I felt like, “I have to do this because not only is it what I’ve got to do to keep up with my fans and my career, but this is my way to survive.” The acting success gave me another very strong revenue stream, where it’s like, “Shit, I got all of this income off of acting.” That started to make me look in a different way. It [helps] the pressures I was feeling from the music industry like, “I’ve got to put out a certain record, to get more popularity, to ultimately become a bigger artist, to ultimately make more money.” But when the success on the film and TV shit came, it just gave me more power over the integrity in music. It’s like, “Shit, man, I could do whatever I want, because I got other things going on for myself.” I don’t have to just rely on music to live.

I thought a lot about Kendrick in relation to 2000, because he also took five years off between records and then he came back with a very heavy concept record. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into your record, but it seems to me like you came back a little bit lighter on your feet than Kendrick did. Was that intentional?

I’m so happy you brought that up, because I made a decision that I didn’t want this to be a super heavy conceptual album. I define this album as a lifestyle album. It’s true to character. It’s true to my life. It’s my experience as a man now, 10 years into the game. This is like a victory lap, if you will. But, at one point in time, I was working on that heavy conceptual album. A lot of great records came from there, but I decided to steer in a different direction because as I was working on that music, I was really low, and I was really feeling those emotions. As I progressed out of that time in my life, I didn’t want to represent myself with that energy that I had overcome. I actually wanted to be more, like you said, lighter on my feet. I wanted to be more just true to character. I wanted this music to feel good. I wanted this music to feel like a progression. I didn’t want it to feel like depression, especially after we spent two years in the house.

It’s funny: I was working on an album that was similar to Kendrick’s, because I also went through the whole therapy thing. The concept that I was going for was I was going to be speaking to my therapist throughout the whole album. It’s always interesting. Me and Kendrick, we’ve got this interesting relationship. I know he feels it too. We spoke on it over the years. Great minds think alike. He’s a Gemini. I’m Aquarius. I also got Gemini on my chart, so there’s a lot of similarities. A lot of things he does resonate with me deeply, but shit, I’m glad I chose to switch my concept, because then it would’ve been two of these like-minded projects with these like-minded individuals.

When you came out, you were branded something of a throwback rapper. Did you ever like that description?

When I was younger, I hated that people said that, because I felt like they were just trying to box me in and pigeonhole me. So, I felt very inclined to show them that I could do other things. There were definitely a couple trials and tribulations in the beginning, because I didn’t like that. I don’t like it when people try to tell me that, “You can only do this,” when I know how expansive I could be. But now it’s not anything that I dislike or love, but what I do. The positive thing in it is that you can define my music, and that’s what separates artists these days. You’ve got to be able to define them. If you’re just a guy, you could have a wide range of talent, but if you got no sound, then you don’t really got no fan base. If you got no fan base, you ain’t got no true backbone to fall on. I take it more with pride now. Shit, I’m born from the ’90s. It was the best ever of music in my opinion, in my humble opinion. I’m not trying to shade anything or anybody, but [if] I’m a “stuck in the ’90s person,” so be it. It’s made me very successful.

When was the last time you listened to 1999?

I listened to it a lot this year in the making of—well, in the rounding out, in the finishing—of 2000, because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t too far off from my mark of what I was aiming for. So, I’ve listened to it a few times very recently and then I also had the 10-year anniversary shows, where I had to not only listen to it, but I had to really learn the music again.

What do you hear when you listen to it? What do you feel when you perform those songs now?

I feel proud, because most of these songs are songs that I wrote in my bedroom as a teenager, and the fact that they stood the test of time, the fact that I could stand on stage 10 years later and still rap these words, and they still feel so profound to me. They don’t feel dated like “Man, I was a teenager when I wrote this. I can’t say this is a grown man now.”

What’s even more bugged out, [on tour] I saw, for the first time in my career, a generational difference. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now. I was meeting a lot of kids, and they’re like, “I’m 21. I was 11 when you dropped 1999,” and I’m like, “What?” That absolutely blew my mind, because when I was 17 years old, I don’t think I could even fathom the thought of younger kids listening to my music. I thought it was just kids my age, and older people.

You occupy somewhat of a unique space because of the age you were when you put that out. You’re a veteran, but you’re still a young man. Are there any types of emotions or responsibilities to younger rappers that you feel because of that?

When J. Cole dropped the song “Middle Child,” it took me aback, because I’m like, “If he’s the middle child, what the fuck am I?” You know what I’m saying? I really feel like that middle child. It’s like I got the OGs in the game, but then I also got the younger homies in the game, who I’m all connected to. I tend to have a lot of patience and grace when it comes to these younger artists of today, because I was young when I entered the game. I was still a kid. So, it was a lot of mistakes that I made, which are honest mistakes, because I was still learning. I was just thrown into the fire.

And over the years, if you are fortunate enough to survive, you start to learn. And those experiences, or those mistakes, start to turn into wisdom, and you understand how you could have went about situations differently. For example, I remember the first time I went out to Germany. I think that was my first overseas trip. It was the Bread & Butter festival in 2012, the first time I flew overseas in life. I remember just being so psyched that I was there. I didn’t really care about anything else. “All right, I just got to fly out to Germany for my music.” And me, thinking in my head, “I’m never going to see these people again. I’m in Germany,” when, really, how I should have been looking at it is, “This is the time to network. This is the time to start building that network. Build your Rolodex.”

So, these are early things that I was starting to take notice of, so when I see these young artists of today, I’m patient with them. I’ll give them advice if they’re looking for it, but other than that, I just give them time.

The co-signs on this project get to the other side of that, with Diddy and Nas both popping up on interludes. Does the Nas one mean something particularly special? I know that when 1999 came out, it drew a lot of Illmatic comparisons. And the first thing I thought when I saw the cover to 2000 was, “Oh, Stillmatic,” where it’s a callback to the previous record, just done a little differently.

It definitely did mean something a little different from Puff, because while Puff was equally as special, I’ve actually spent a lot more time with Puff, hanging out with him. So, that was easier to get done. With Nas, however, I was actually trying to get him on the record. I wanted him to drop a verse for me, but it just didn’t align. I saw him at the beginning of June. We were both on this festival bill together in Poland, and we just sat for an hour. We was chopping it up for a long time, just about life and just about different shit like that, didn’t even talk about music once. And then at the end, I was like, “Yo, man, I’m pretty bummed that we couldn’t make this work out for my album.”

But I was like, “Yo, I got another idea. Would you be into doing this type of thing, where you’re just speaking on it?” I was explaining to him, “The motif of the album is inside a jazz club or something like that.” So, he could speak from that vibe like he’s coming on the stage to share a few words about the act. And he got it instantly. He was like, “That’s easy. I could do that.” He sent it two days later, and it was perfect.

As a Brooklyn kid and a torchbearer for a certain kind of hip-hop, what do you think the state of New York rap is right now?

Well, I think it’s pretty clear that New York is in its drill era. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing as long as these drill rappers are going to come with it and continue to bring that, put forth that energy. I’m not one of those guys where I’m like, “This shit ain’t the same no more.” I don’t got time to complain. I’m still in the game. So, the best I could do is contribute to what I’d like to see, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m from New York. I’m from Brooklyn. I’m holding my flag up for the state, and y’all see what I’m on. Y’all see what I represent. So, to all the people out there who be like, “New York has changed, it’s not the same,” support my shit. Stop complaining, and support the shit that is reflective of how you want this shit to be.

I ain’t got nothing bad to say about drill music. There are some artists who I like over there, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’m not listening to drill music in my house. You feel me? I’m home, bro. I’m on some peaceful shit, bro. But the state of New York is always growing and evolving. So, we can make it what we want to make it. It’s just—New York got to get out of its own way. As far as when it comes to gatekeepers and tastemakers, it’s been a lot of the same people for years. You know what I’m saying? And people are not switching out these roles, and that’s why this shit is getting jaded.

I wanted to talk about “Survivors Guilt” a little, which is one of the heavier moments on the record. It’s a tribute to Steez. So, there’s a lot of emotion that goes into that, but one of the interesting things to me about that song is how directly you talk about mental health and how difficult it was to talk about a decade ago. Do you feel like we are better at discussing mental health now than we were 10 years ago?

Absolutely. I think the first step in the change is taking notice. The fact that so many of us have begun to open the conversation and the floor up to mental health issues, and sharing different emotions and sentiments about the topic has definitely allowed space for us to grow and evolve. I definitely think that line was so real, because even as that song was formulating itself in my mind, when that line came to me, I was like, “Damn, you see the truth is he struggled with mental health,” but try to talk about that in 2012. Try to go back to that time and really try to detail that. It wasn’t as much advocacy going on back then as there is now. It was way more taboo, especially in the Black community. So, that was very real and personal and deep to me, but I am proud of how we have evolved.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think we are better at discussing it?

People are being more open and vulnerable. It’s just a natural evolution. As time continues to go on, more things are going to come forward to the light, and right now, at this moment in time, mental health happens to be one of those things, but also spirituality. I’m seeing spirituality be more of a common topic now than it was 10 years ago when we was rapping about it as teenagers, and stuff like that. So, I just look at the world as evolving.

To circle back to the beginning of this conversation: Is it going to be five years before we hear another album from you?

Absolutely not. Shit, I’m ready to go in five months. Going such a long time without putting out a body of work, it made me forget how much I love the energy exchange between myself and the world receiving my music. It made me forget what that felt like for people to be hitting me up on a daily basis like, “Yo, this song does this for me,” or, “This song lifts me here,” or, “This song made me think about this,” “This song helped me go through a breakthrough.” So, now that I got that bug again, I’m excited, and I’m eager to keep putting out music. I’m eager to be a rapper again. I’m amped. I’ve never wanted to be a rapper so much in my life.