The independent rapper Joey Bada$$, 20, made headlines recently when a mysterious selfie of Malia Obama wearing a shirt repping his Pro Era hip-hop collective surfaced on the internet. (A rep for the rap group later said that it came from a “mutual friend of Malia’s and the Pro Era crew.” Go figure.) But the timing was serendipitous: Joey was just gearing up to release his debut studio album, B4.Da.$$, and the photo proved that his impact extended far beyond his rabidly loyal fan base.
Ever since his 1999 mixtape put him on the map in 2012, Joey has been stoking his hip-hop cred with feature spots on songs from rappers like A$AP Rocky while maintaining a seemingly endless touring schedule. His flow is dexterous and smooth, paired with smoky jazz-infused beats produced by veterans like The Roots; that’s invited comparisons to ‘90s hitmakers like Nas. Production credits from Hit-Boy (Beyonce, Jay-Z) don’t hurt, either.
But it’s also his youthful idealism that’s made him a budding star: on the intro of the Freddie Joachim-produced “On and On,” he raps, “Mama, I just bought a first class ticket to my destiny.” That’s looking likelier than ever.
TIME: What does the album title B4.Da.$$ mean?
To me it means three things, okay? Number one is the times before the money — the past. Number two — the title is a play on my name. Number three is basically the mindset that I was in, and that I’m trying to introduce to everyone as well. I call it the before the money mind state. What it entails is: no matter what, no matter where you are in life, whether at the bottom or at the top, always having the same mentality that you did when you first like, figured out what your dream or passion was, and always keep[ing] that same hunger from day one. All the way into the end — that same drive.
You’ve earned a lot of comparisons to ‘90s hip hop — your last mixtape was titled 1999. How has hip-hop has changed since that year?
I don’t know — I wasn’t really there. I was only four years old, you feel me? But I refer to that era as the golden age of hip-hop. I like to call it traditional rap because I feel like that is what rap is supposed to be. What I’m trying to do is just carry on the tradition.
You just released a new single, “Born Day (AquariUS).” Why release a single that’s not on the album the same day that you release your new album?
Statik Selektah made that beat while we was on tour, and he put the Nas scratch in it, “I woke up early on my born day / I’m 20, it’s a blessing.” As soon as he did that we both knew I had to do it—recorded it like a week ago and decided to drop it today, on my birthday, as an extra token of my gratitude.
Bobby Shmurda is mentioned in that song. The hip-hop community has been rocked by several recent tragedies — including Bobby’s arrest. You grew up on the same block as him, and he’s your age.
Not on the same block — just the same neighborhood.
Watching him have so much success, and then end up getting arrested, knowing that he came from the same place as you — does it make you feel grateful? How has that affected you?
Why would it make me feel grateful that he got arrested? It’s painting an image that makes me really worried — it’s crazy how that could be any one of us, you know? Who knows if that s— is true or not. But the main perception of Bobby Shmurda is everything he talks about in his raps. So now, with all of the s— that’s being pinned on him, who knows if that s— is really true? A lot of that s— could be exaggerations but it’s really sad to see this happen to one of hip hop’s rising stars. And it makes me worried, because I feel like as a whole, we are responsible for the culture and what happens within the culture.
In what direction do you think hip-hop is headed?
I see a change, you feel me? Over the last couple of years there’s been a change. Hip hop definitely took a turn into a new direction [that’s] fulfilling now, and I see a lot of things changing, so I can’t wait to see what happens next.
How did you feel when you saw Malia Obama’s Pro Era selfie?
Ecstatic! Ecstatic, shocked.
The timing couldn’t have been better.
That’s how it is when you live your life with synchronicity.
What does that mean?
I don’t know. I’m just Joey Bada$$.