Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ likes to keep things candid.
He'll tell you, without hesitation, that any record label that wants to sign him will have to pay him $3 million up front. He'll also tell you that he still lives with his mom at her house in Flatbush.
Welcome to the life of an 18-year-old prodigy. With his introspective lyrics and sample-based sound, many have declared Bada$$—born Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott—the savior of New York hip-hop. His debut mixtape, last year's 1999, was a throwback to the "golden age" of the genre, when rappers used their lyrics to broadcast social ills and call for change, and beats were built on fuzzy soul samples and James Brown drum breaks. Scott not only paid tribute to the likes of EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan, but he made old sounds ring fresh. Not bad for a kid who wasn't even born when 36 Chambers came out.
Although Scott says he also loves contemporary trap-rap, his affinity for the old school runs deeper. "That era just speaks to me more,â he says.
It helps when you grew up in a household that cherished the classics. Scott's parents and older cousins devotedly listened to early '90s hip-hop and R&B, in addition to Prince and reggae. By age 11, Scott decided to pick up the pen himself. In high school, he formed his own crew, Pro Era, with friends Capital Steez, CJ Fly and Powers Pleasant. Going solo with 1999, the project's lead single, "Waves," built on a buttery-smooth jazz beat, caught the rap world's attention. Now, only months removed from high school, Scott is touring the globe and turning down record labels—like Jay-Z's Roc Nation—that don't bring enough money to the table. Don't let his business moves and retro-tinged music fool you, though: Scott may seem like an old soul, but he still remembers where he came from.
"As far as walking in the street and being in my hometown, I just try to be that cool dude that everybody can reach," he says. "There are a lot of things changing in my life. I'm going through a lot."
That is, perhaps, a veiled reference to his good friend Capital Steez, who passed away last year in a suspected suicide. Scott refuses to speak on the matter, but admits he has gone through some "bad personal problems" in the past year. This may be why his latest mixtape, the much-anticipated Summer Knights, replaces the playfulness of his debut with a bleaker take on life. Even the project's cover, a dimly lit painting of two bikes sitting quietly by a murky body of water, invokes a darkened state of mind.
But the songs are still well-thought-out and, maybe more than ever, heartfelt. Summer Knights further proves that Scott's music is not some gimmicky nod to hip-hop's past but, instead, the genuine expression of a promising young MC.
"There's still a large crowd of individuals who are oblivious to what I could be meaning with my words. I think they're just riding the bandwagon," Scott says. "I'm just trying to extend my reach."
Tickets and official site: musicfestnw.com
SEE IT: Joey Bada$$ plays Roseland Theater at 10 pm Tuesday, Sept. 3. .