Joey Bada$$ took the hip-hop world by storm with the release of his 1999 mixtape in 2012.
He was the up-and-coming savior of the East Coast boom bap hip-hop scene, flexing illustrious bars paired with retro instrumentals by legends in MF Doom and J Dilla. You could almost taste the stale Phillies wrappers blowing in the wind off of a Lenox Road sidewalk. Joey’s respect for the craft was admirable, and his knowledge of the past was immaculate. Bada$$’ youth and the posse of Pro Era recruits he carried with him were lauded by industry OGs as a revitalization of backpack rap from days they used to know.
And though Bada$$’ debut album B4.DA.$$ (2015) achieved much critical success, the media praise slowed and the hype subsided. The collective “we” who love hip-hop began to wonder if Joey Bada$$ was going to be another fresh face who catches eyes only to fade off into a purgatory of fashion industry co-signs and past success.
That sentiment has been crushed. In spectacular fashion, actually.
On March 6th, 2017, Bada$$ released the video for his second-released single “Land of the Free” off of his upcoming album All-Amerikkkan Bada$$.
As you can already tell by the title of the single and the album accompanied, the song is a political statement in a world already so full of political statements. Yet, while we’ve heard marred and vague political statements in abundance from rappers like Kanye West or Pusha T, Bada$$ has joined the elite of modern thought with Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike on this track.
Bada$$ raps over a perfectly married G-funk instrumental reminiscent of synths in Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and 2Pac’s “Do For Love” with a drum pattern that brings parallels to The Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy”. The symbolism only begins here as the East Coast rapper is biting a West Coast style, signaling a greater purpose and an aim to reach a broader audience.
We enter the scene with eclectic imagery right off the bat. A 1960’s Ford Mustang that is more aptly outfitted for the 1981 film The Road Warrior races in circles with an American flag hanging out the window. This image evokes an idealism or nostalgia that is distinctly Americana, with the Ford Mustang being likely the most iconic car in our history next to the Model T. Yet, the car’s bodykit gives us a more apocalyptic image, a nod to the aforementioned film.
A sequence of quick cuts reveals people of color wrapped in chains, followed by close-ups of Bada$$ and the American flag, which is a custom piece made of blue and red paisley patterned bandanas: a pastiche to the gang culture of the Crips and Bloods. We’ve seen this imagery before, and it’s often cliched without a clear purpose to the intention of use. It becomes clear with the following scene though, where Joey is lecturing a group of small children clad in white. This is a message of youth, purity and hope.
“Three K’s, two A’s in America/I’m just a black spade spawned out the nebula” raps Bada$$. He’s talking about a country still wrought with racism, himself being a black man without place in the society that hates his kin so much. This lyric is brought to more light in the bridge — probably one of the most powerful statements made in the music world in a long, long time.
“And the land of the free is full of free loaders/ Leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors.”
That lyric stands alone. No need to elaborate.
The bridge is followed closely by an even more powerful image. Bada$$ stands in the middle of a firing squad. On one side — People of color dressed in black hooded sweatshirts, and on the other — police and politicians holding guns. One by one the PoC are shot down without a flinch or hint of emotion from either side. It’s as if the hooded group is either just so tired that they cannot feel the true pain bought upon them, or they are defiantly accepting and resolute to the mortal fate they are being given. This is juxtaposed with the other side who are either oblivious or unapologetic of the punishment doled out.
Bullets hailing around him, Bada$$ dances through the fire and is spared by an invisible forcefield that blocks the bullets. It’s as if to say that art, dance and a kind or benevolent spirit will set you free. This is an intentional action that words almost can’t do justice. Easily could Bada$$ have had the hooded PoC take up arms and shoot back, or block the bullets themselves. But his message was one of peace and creativity. Just keep going, and we’ll get through.
Ending the video, Bada$$ is lynched with intercutting of a burning cross and KKK members who reveal themselves to be police; an opportunity to end on a dark and lasting image that would easily scar the minds of the audience. But it is not the last image. Bada$$ ends with the children dressed in white, playing in the sun and tall grass. They are the future.
Lyrics aside, and commanding as they are — “Land of the Free” births an image full of spirit, grace and hope while highlighting the moral quagmire of America past and present.
The video speaks to us in this chronological order: The iconic America we knew is a bit more rustic and desolate than we idealize it. People of color are still treated as second-class citizens, though they maintain in defiance and sheer strength. We hope and pray for our children that joy and salvation will be our future. However, that doesn’t change the fact that our brothers and sisters in humanity are being shot down without second thought. Even still, we sing and dance until we find our center and our own joy; and God willing until everyone puts the guns down. There will still be those who misuse their teachings and values to spread negativity in the world (burning the cross), but ultimately; the children and youth under us will prevail.
Well done, Mr. Bada$$.