“He looks like my cousin,” says an Indonesian friend about Rich Brian.
There’s definitely something familiar about the young rapper. We could well have passed by each other years ago in some mall in Jakarta, where we both grew up. Like me, he’s of Chinese descent, speaks primarily in English, and has moved to the United States. Unlike me though, he’s one of hip-hop’s most intriguing young stars.
Brian’s rise to rap notoriety is an unorthodox one. Homeschooled from a young age, he initially learned English from watching Rubik’s Cube tutorial videos on YouTube. Under his given name, Brian Imanuel, he went on to gain a significant social media following for absurd Vines and strange tweets, all in his adopted language. Even now, as I scroll through his Twitter feed, I see a picture of him smiling beside a goat. The caption? “This is my dog nathan.”
On a dare at age 16, Brian transitioned to rap. He adopted the questionable moniker Rich Chigga, and soon gained success with 2016 viral hit “Dat $tick” (currently at over 80 million views on YouTube). Though the track itself deftly mimics contemporary trap, featuring steady flow, street slang, and gun threats, it probably gained traction because of its accompanying music video, in which Brian wears a pink polo and fanny pack while his posse brandish handguns around him. Here, he clearly raps about a life he hasn’t lived.
His lyrics have the self-reflective elements of a young Childish Gambino or Drake…
Since then, the now 18-year-old Brian has matured. This year he shed his problematic former alias for one truer to himself: Rich Brian. His music has changed along the same lines. His debut project Amen is largely self-produced (“95 percent,” he claims in interviews) with lyrics that are chiefly introspective and grounded in personal experience. Brian clearly wants to be taken seriously.
In Amen, only slight traces of the trap sound that made his name remain. The delivery he adopts in most tracks is melodic—partially inspired, perhaps, by his friend Post Malone—laid over pensive, dreamy beats. His lyrics have the self-reflective elements of a young Childish Gambino or Drake, delivered in deep-voiced deadpan. He hasn’t lost his sense of humour, though, as grin-worthy lines are interspersed throughout the album.
Amen starts strongly and remains interesting. The title track is a dexterous exercise in flow. Brian dispenses a flurry of rhymes, pushing smoothly through a beat switch midway through. He ends the track with a commitment to subverting stereotypes: “Do the shit for the people that look like me/So girls can see them when they think of me/And not that kid that throw that fit/‘Cause he didn’t get straight A’s all week.”
The second track, “Cold,” is my favorite on the album. It is a slower, melodic track that features Brian at his self-reflective best. He begins the verse in melancholy singsong: “Saw a car crash, it remind me of our first date.” He then offers a series of one-liners that double as nighttime vignettes. They include him calling his father for advice, drunkenly hailing a cab, and sipping on a latte after a day of hard work. A memorable punchline closes the song: “It’s Brian not Brita so I’ll never need a filter.”
“Introvert” features Joji, who croons the brooding chorus. Joji, Brian’s labelmate at Asian-American entertainment company 88rising, comes from similarly unusual origins. He is a Japanese-Australian who used to run the irreverent and absurd “Filthy Frank” YouTube channel where, among other things, he invented the frenzied “Harlem Shake” dance trend.
There are four features on the album, and none of them seem gratuitous. Most are in-house singers (NIKI and AUGUST 08 are signed to 88rising as well). Offset, of Migos fame, is the exception. The Atlanta rapper arrives in “Attention” to flex and deliver a verse that, though brief and routine, is sure to boost the song’s popularity.
“Glow Like Dat,” released last summer, was always going to be an album highlight. From the dreamy, floral beat that represents Brian’s early foray into production to the catchy, clever chorus that references Mac DeMarco and the clove cigarettes (kretek) which are so popular in the motherland, it’s not difficult to imagine the single receiving decent radio play.
In “Flight,” Brian recollects the excitement of first day in America, fondly recalling his first in-person meeting with manager Sean Miyashiro and his first studio session with Pharrell Williams. At the same time, he remembers his roots. “All I see is red and white,” he sings in chorus, a reference to the Indonesian flag.
Two-minute-long “Chaos” is the most raucous song on the album. It’s a dizzying banger, and you can tell here that Brian’ is having fun. The chorus is tongue-in-cheek and terribly catchy: “I be riding’ right down Melrose with a thicky named Rose/Sittin’ on my lap, but she just tryna be my friend, though.”
“Arizona” is the album’s final track, and it’s a nice closer. It features newcomer AUGUST 08, who sounds like Frank Ocean on a lower register. As he bids his listeners adieu, Brian leaves them with this promise: “I’ma make a debut album after this/It’s the end but I’m just getting started.”
Catchy melodies and decent bars make the album radio-friendly, while Brian’s self-revelatory lyrics offer earnest substance
In a recent interview with Complex, Brian admitted that he considers Amen more of a project than an album. The release was initially conceived as a five-track EP that ended up with enough songs for a full-length. “I wish I had more time to work on it as an album,” he said. “Because an album is something that has a concept and a story from the first song to the last song.”
In all, Amen is a promising first release, one that displays new breadth and maturity from the Jakarta rapper. Catchy melodies and decent bars make the album radio-friendly, while Brian’s self-revelatory lyrics offer earnest substance. 18 years young, Brian should continue to improve from a good start. By his own indication, his next release will be an even more cohesive body of work (a “real” album) and I’ll definitely be looking out for it.
“He looks like my cousin,” says my friend. He reminds me of me, I think to myself. Somehow, this goofy homeschooled kid from my city is now on the international stage, making waves in hip-hop with a surprisingly solid debut. Honestly, I can’t help but be a little proud as I watch his rise. I do hope he and his dog Nathan make it all the way to the top.
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