Joey Badass Knows the World Needs His New Music and He’s Got the Album to Prove It
The World Is Yours
Joey Bada$$' talent is permeating through more than speakers since he's flourishing on TV. The rhyme slinger's ability to exist in more than one creative space is apparent, but now, he's returning to his rap roots.
Interview: Aleia Woods
Images: Ellington Hammond
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
With a decade under his belt in the ever-changing rap game, Joey Bada$$ has not only sustained but managed to become a multi-hyphenate. The 27-year-old Brooklyn rapper, known for his inventive, illustrative and bold lyricism, transitioned from the poster child of modern-day boom-bap tracks and bars to a revered thespian. The latter is partly a byproduct of manifestation. Rap, his first love, and teenage studies of theater afforded him a level of unforeseen preparation that allowed him to perform in a 2020 Oscar-winning short film, Two Distant Strangers, and star in one of 50 Cent’s Power universe franchises, Power Book III: Raising Kanan, as the character Unique.
A decade ago, the young, zealous and tenacious phenom, born Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, released his very first mixtape, 1999. Now, as he approaches the anniversary of his introduction into hip-hop—one that embraces his anomalous pen game—Joey’s offering a new opus that encompasses growth and transparency while acknowledging the harsh realities endured within the Black community.
Joey’s third LP is slated to arrive before summer. He’s holding its title close to the chest. Before getting to this point, fans of the Badmon were unwavering when holding the rapper accountable for refusing to give them an album for five years. However, instead of composing excuses for the delay, he’s providing the solution: a project that was worth the wait.
As the sun sets while Joey Bada$$ sits in his car, he speaks with XXL through Zoom on a February evening, opening up about acting, music and more.
XXL: You dropped your single “The Rev3nge” in January after a bit of a hiatus. How does it feel to get back to what we know is your first love?
Joey Bada$$: It’s weird because I never actually stepped away from it. That’s just kind of what it looks like out in the open because it’s been so long since I’ve actually put music out. But the whole time, I can’t remember a month that’s gone by where I wasn’t in the studio working on music. January was probably the first month in five years where I did not record any music. And that was done purposely because I’m just at the point now where I’ve recorded so much music over the time that I’ve been away that I told myself, I don’t need to step back in the studio again ’cause it’s all there.
Is there any other new music? Is there a single that fans can look forward to?
I got a song called “Head High.” This is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever recorded. This is an essential, one of the greatest, most mature, heartfelt records that I’ve ever written. I talk about my relationship with X [XXXTentacion] and I just highlight a little bit on gun violence and rap music and how it pertains to what’s going on. The senseless killings and brothers getting incarcerated. It’s just an important song and I’m excited to get it out because nobody is putting shit out like this right now.
What about the album?
I’m just ready for it to come out. I know the world needs new Joey music. Shit, Joey wants to give the world new music. I can’t share any album titles as of yet. I like for things to be fully set in stone before I start talking or whatever, but definitely shooting for before summer. And it’s looking pretty promising, I’ll say that.
Can you talk about the production or special guests?
Oh yeah, fa sho. As far as producers go, I got my boys on there: Statik Selektah, Kirk Knight. I got a Cardo joint on there. I got a Mike WiLL [Made-It] joint on there. I’m supposed to be getting in with DJ Premier this week ’cause I told him I can’t complete this album if we don’t link up.
In January, you tweeted, “I understand I gotta rebuild morale with my supporters. It’s been 5 years of stop & gos, I take full accountability but watch. We finally bout to eat… real good.” What do you think is the most important aspect of building morale with your audience after not really giving them any new music for such long time?
Consistency. 1,000 percent. That’s kind of what I meant with that. I’m a very accountable person. I live in real time and everything. I’m a realist, so I understand that there’s been a lot of stop and gos. It’s kind of been my fault. I’ll say this and then boom, we’ll start and then we’ll stop. Start and stop. That’s what I realized and I’ve noticed how it’s kind of damaged my relationship with my fans. I see that and this is my response. This whole year, what I’m about to do and how I’m about to roll this music out.
It’s been about 10 years since you put out your first mixtape which was called 1999. You aren’t old in age exactly, but as far as being in the game, there’s an OG title that can kinda be put on you.
I’ll say vet. I feel like OG is 20 [years]. You hit vet status at 10. So, it’s like nephew and not quite uncle yet. Yeah, it’s like big brother right now. I’m definitely not uncle status. I’m big bro, 1,000.
How does it feel though, to be a big bro and you’re only 27?
It’s funny ’cause when J. Cole came out with that song “Middle Child,” I’m like, Damn. I feel like that line fit me more. I’m young enough to be little bro to the OGs, but old enough to be the big bro to the little homies. I really feel like that. I really lived that.
It’s certain people in the game that’s two or three years younger than me and they look up to me like I’m fuckin’ 10 years older than them. It’s interesting because, in a sense, I kind of am. When you in this game, it matures you rapidly. You grow super fast. It’s an accelerated pace.
How do you measure success for yourself?
I was asking myself this the other day. For me, integrity. Knowing that I’m staying true to what I believe in, to my values, my purpose. That’s how I measure that I’m successful. It’s all integral for me. One thing I’ll never sacrifice is integrity.
Talk about Two Distant Strangers. How did you even find out about that role?
That came via a good friend of mine by the name of Jeymes Samuel. Jeymes Samuel is the creator of The Harder They Fall. I met him back in 2020, at a Roc Nation brunch. Me and him, we just connected right off the rip, but it didn’t work because of Unique. I took the role for Unique and, I kid you not, three days later, Jeymes called me to be in The Harder They Fall.
Fast-forward four months later, it’s the summer of 2020. I get a call from Jeymes and he’s like, “Yo, Joey, my homie Travon [Free] got this script. It’s gon’ be on Netflix. The story is crazy and I told him that you’re the only person I can see playing it.” And he connected me with Travon. I read the script and it seemed like something that was in line with the story that I was trying to tell and the messages that I’m about. I just took a chance.
To tell the truth, I didn’t even get paid for that. It was a short film. It was a project. An experiment. We did the short film because originally, we were supposed to do a full-length feature film, a full movie. But once I got involved, it activated a lot of people. Once they saw my execution, everybody wanted to be a part of the production team now and that obviously helped it get pushed up in the Recording Academy and we won the Oscar.
Where’s the Oscar? Do you have it encased or is it tucked somewhere safely?
I don’t actually have one myself. Yeah, so, it [Two Distant Strangers] won the Oscar for Best Short Film. But that Oscar goes to the directors. But it’s all good. I got an Oscar with my name on it coming soon.
Two Distant Strangers touched on topics that immensely impact the Black community. As a young Black man from Brooklyn, how were you able to navigate through this role without internalizing any of the traumas that could’ve come from it?
There was no way to navigate without internalizing. That was part of being in character and I feel like that was part of why I was able to pull off the character so well because I was pulling from real-life experiences with the police. I’ve been stopped and frisked since I was 11 years old. Undercovers coming up, damn near strip-searching me and whoever I’m with at the time. It’s always a trauma that I had. It’s always something that affected me coming up.
I’m not gon’ lie, I had to do therapy after I shot Two Distant Strangers because it was a lot of internalization. I remember the first scene in the movie, when I’m coming out of the girl’s apartment and police see me and they slam me on the floor. I remember shooting that in real time and it was people driving by, they would stop, and they would roll down their window and they’d be like, “Yo, is this real? Or is this for a movie? What’s going on? You good?” It’s traumatic for these innocent bystanders as well.
So, you’re a 1990’s baby. What is it like portraying a person like the character Unique on Power Book III: Raising Kanan who’s living in a time that you weren’t even born yet? Do you enjoy it?
It’s very fun. To me, it’s like the real epitome of acting, right? Because it’s like, not only do you gotta put on another character, but you have to exist in a whole different time period. It’s a lot of imagining. I feel like my strength, when it comes to acting, it’s instinct. And to play a time period piece, that involves a lot of instinctual decisions. That’s why I feel like I’m about to shine there so much.
How did you get the role?
First, I asked for it. Meaning like, not the Power universe. I asked God. I asked the universe. I remember at the end of 2019, I wrote my goals out for 2020, and one of those goals was I wanted to land a defining role in my career and right when the year started, I got the audition for Power Book III.
When I read the role, the character description, I’m like, This is me 1,000 percent. And I’m gonna share something that people will probably hate me for, but I didn’t even really practice for it. I’m instinctual. I don’t go so hard on memorizing lines because I want to be there. I want to be the character. I want to fill in his shoes. So, I just kind of skim what the story is about and improvise and play off that. I went up there, I did it.
And I remember Sascha Penn, Sascha is the creator of Raising Kanan, he wrote the joint, he looked at me, he was hysterical. He was laughing and he was just like, “Yo, bro. That was really fuckin’ good.” A couple [of] weeks later, we got the call.
Will you ever go by Jo-Vaughn Scott or will it always be Joey Bada$$?
That’s actually my intention moving forward. I definitely wanna use my real name when it comes to film more because I just want to make the clear distinction. Joey Bada$$ is not an actor, he’s a rapper. I don’t know if I’ll do the Jo-Vaughn “Joey Bada$$” Virginie Scott thing. I’ll probably just use my name and it’s like if you know, you know, type of thing.
Read the cover story with Playboi Carti and check out the other interviews in the magazine with Fivio Foreign, Latto, DaBaby, Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J, Hit-Boy, Denzel Curry, RZA, Big K.R.I.T., Saba, Morray, Nardo Wick, Kali, Sleepy Hallow, SSGKobe, ATL Jacob, Pink Sweat$, Saucy Santana, Jason Lee, Angie Randisi and Colby Turner in the new issue of XXL magazine, which is on newsstands now and in XXL's online shop.