Whenever I’m engaged in a conversation about the greatest rappers of our generation, Joey Bada$$ is a name that pops up time and time again. With a career spanning almost 11 years, it’s safe to say the Brooklyn-born MC – real name Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott – is one of the most successful and incredibly well-respected talents going. It’s easy to forget he’s only 28 – his first solo mixtape, 1999, was released in 2012, when he was just 17. That widely acclaimed project laid the foundations for a career that has landed the artist platinum and gold records and sold-out tours and even propelled him into the realms of film and TV. Fast forward to 2023 and the release of Bada$$’s most recent album, 2000, a spiritual successor to 1999 – and his first project in five years.
In conjunction with that album, Bada$$ embarked on a 19-date European tour, allowing his fans this side of the pond to finally revel in the music they had longed for. It’s towards the end of the tour that Bada$$ joins me over Zoom, right before a sold-out show in Glasgow and after two sold-out nights in London – which are attended by pretty much the whole HUNGER team. “I love the energy out here,” Bada$$ says of his time on the continent. “The crowds are always crazy, you feel just how devoted to hip-hop they all are.”
It’s no surprise that Bada$$ has one of the most dedicated fan bases in hip-hop; whether in his homeland or in Europe, most of his fans have been riding with him since he was a teenager. “What I’ve realised is that a lot of my fans grow with me. I’ve seen thousands of kids grow with me and use my journey for inspiration, which means a lot,” he says. One thing they had been itching for since being introduced to him was a sequel to 1999. If you’ve ever had a look at the comments section on the musician’s Instagram account over the past few years you won’t have missed the sea of devotees almost begging for it. And now that the project has finally hit the airwaves, it’s safe to say it was more than worth the wait. It came after the politically charged All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, so listeners were expecting more of the same – but that wasn’t what Bada$$ had in mind. “I didn’t want this to be a super-conceptual body of work. I wanted it to be more thematic and more of a mood,” he says. “I wanted to create something that could help my fans feel fly and confident.”
In its essence, 2000 feels like luxury. From Bada$$’s effortless braggadocio to the lush and vibrant production crafted by renowned producers including Mike Will Made It and Statik Selektah, the record is hip-hop high fashion. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of substance and poignancy – this is Joey Bada$$, after all. One of those moments comes from the standout cut Head High’, on which Bada$$ mourns the loss of his friend and former collaborator XXXTentacion, who was lost to gun violence in 2018. It’s sadly an all-too-familiar tale in the hip-hop world, which experiences tragic losses year after year: last November, Migos member Takeoff was fatally shot, providing a stark reminder of America’s woeful gun-violence issues. “Nothing has improved since X passed, and it probably won’t ever improve if nothing changes soon. It looks like this shit is just going to get worse, to be honest,” Bada$$ says frankly. While the US media may often point the finger at artists for glorifying violence, the issue is clearly more complex and deep-rooted than music. “The thing is, the media are never gonna say who’s really at the source of the issue,” the rapper points out. “It ain’t hip-hop. Sure, hip-hop can perpetuate it, but let’s ask ourselves why it’s even a part of hip-hop in the first place. And that’s a rabbit hole that you can go ahead and get lost in.”
Bada$$ has time and again used his art as a vessel for social change, and no more so than in the 2020 short film Two Distant Strangers. In it, Bada$$ takes on the role of cartoonist Carter, who is repeatedly forced to relive a deadly encounter with a police officer in a set-up similar to that seen in the film Groundhog Day. Providing an honest and uncomfortable view into the horrific police brutality that occurs in the US, the film picked up the Oscar for best live-action short film in 2021. Bada$$ received high praise for his emotive, heartbreaking performance but he reveals he almost decided to turn the role down. “I was just in such a good place emotionally and spiritually [when the role was offered]. It was in the middle of the pandemic and I finally had more than six months to be around my family. And I knew taking on a role like this would do something to me emotionally,” he tells me. “If you want to be anywhere near a decent actor, you gotta put yourself in the shoes of who you’re playing and sometimes the only way to do that is to really feel the emotions these characters would have.” In the event, Bada$$ believed that the importance of the message in the film outweighed his personal comfort. “The script resonated with me in a way where I feel like it was aligned with my message and what I’m about. Even though it was traumatising at times, it felt like the right thing to do.”
As our conversation shifts towards Bada$$’s future ambitions, one thing is clear – he’s certainly not satisfied with the success he’s already achieved. Despite initially becoming known for his intricately woven bars laced with double and triple meanings, the lyricist is setting his sights on becoming even more of a global star – and with that needs to come an international sound. “You’ve gotta understand I have to hit the world stage, so when it comes to Coachella or Glastonbury, the jazzy raps only go so far,” he says. “That’s where the inspiration comes from to step out of my comfort zone. And as much as I love to rap, I’ll tell you what I love even more – being one of the biggest performers in the world.” Bada$$’s growth isn’t going to be exclusive to music, though – he’s carrying that energy with him into the acting world too, taking on more and more prominent parts. His biggest role to date has been in Starz’s Power Book III: Raising Kanan – a spinoff of the hugely popular 50 Cent-produced series Power. For two seasons Bada$$ has played Unique, a Nineties drug kingpin residing in South Jamaica, Queens. “I wanted to take on other roles before something like that to show my versatility, because I knew I’d kill a role like that,” Bada$$ says. And of course he has killed it, raising his stock as an actor to even more dizzying heights.
After speaking with Bada$$, it’s clear he’s in the most confident, assured and excited position he’s ever been in during his career. The passion he shows for his artistic endeavours is contagious and it’s no surprise to see him striving for reinvention while at the top of his game. “You’ve always got to readjust, even if you figure out a balance,” Bada$$ says. And although he’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, he has a clear idea of how he would like his legacy to be viewed. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who challenges the norm, somebody who was always brave and courageous and never afraid to take it to the next level,” he says. It’s not often you genuinely believe someone who tells you their life’s work is devoted to helping inspire others, but with Bada$$, there’s no doubt in my mind. “Ultimately, I just want to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for the generation to come,” he says intently, before adding he’d “love for them to use my path and story as a catapult to lift themselves into higher heights and do something positive on this Earth.” And there’s no denying that Bada$$ is already in a prime position to achieve that goal, if he hasn’t already.