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Rich Brian still finding his balance in ‘Amen’

| Monday, February 12, 2018

The Observer | DIANE PARK

Rich Brian is, as he posits in the first song of his recent release “Amen,” “still learning.” Brian was recently brought stateside through his label, 88 Rising. The rapper rose to prominence through his viral hit, “Dat $tick,” and his career has certainly been interesting as long as he has been relevant. His deep vocals and comical style, especially in such a young Internet-age performer, are eye-catching. However, with “Amen,” Brian is trying to establish himself as a veritable artist — more than a one-off internet celebrity.

Generally, his rhymes run through issues with his newfound fame, ruminations on his homeschooled childhood spent in Jakarta, Indonesia, and tales of winning and losing women. When strictly rapping, as in “Occupied” and “Trespass,” Brian’s inexperience stands out. His lines, while generally full of imagery and fun references, are delivered choppily, and the beats — largely produced by Brian himself — are often lacking in originality and catchiness, or even memorability. From a rap perspective, much of this album is unpleasant to consume.

Despite dry rhymes and beats, some songs, like “Cold” and “Glow Like Dat” contain enticing, string-based instrumentals and a smooth lyrical delivery. These songs, which are more singing than rapping, also contain the most present themes of “Amen.” He sings, “20 mirrors in my crib, I’m hanging with my friends,” reflecting on his homeschooled past in Jakarta and continued isolation as a new foreigner in America.

While these Brian-led songs show his best, his song “Introvert” — featuring label partner Joji — plays like a song curated to 14-year-olds. “No Mom!” screams our 14-year-old. “I won’t do it,” he bleeds into the air. His mother has just asked him to consider going to baseball camp over the summer, just so he has something to do. As he streams past the door to his room, which he has already begun to close, tears well in his eyes — but boys don’t cry, so he holds them. He pushes in his earbuds and hits play. Joji sings into his soul, “I don’t care, but I fight, we don’t lose, we just ride.” Finally, he lets the tears stream.

This meaningless attempt at lyricism appearing in his song is just another marker of Brian’s inexperience in music and adult life. Similarly, the song “Flight” is the same type of grasping attempt to reach significance, which Brian in not quite ready to catch.

In terms of what he does well, Brian is perfectly suited to weave comedy for millennials and younger people into his songs due to his Internet-fueled childhood. In “Trespass,” he begins the song with a phone call from his grandmother, who is trying to reconnect to leech off his fame. Ending the album, he plays a conversation between himself and a friend in which he describes the end of the series “The Office.” But this is an alternative ending where, in his words, Michael Scott dies.

Yet even Brian’s attempts at humor don’t always hit. Brian tries his hand at a losing-his-virginity song, titled “Kitty,” a la J. Cole’s “Wet Dreamz.” Whereas J. Cole raps in his reliably relatable style, including a chorus which changes meaning in its final repetition and a believable plot, Brian’s rendition falls flat. His story is ridiculous and features a twist ending, which only serves to smother any possible affection for the song with its forced attempt at humor.

Despite the choppy and inconsistent nature of, “Amen,” Brian is not necessarily someone to dismiss. His raps, while unpolished, still contain glimmers of insights which maybe only he can deliver. Besides artistic worthiness, he is also part of the greater mission of his label, 88 Rising, to bring real, contemporary East Asian culture to the American mainstream. On the final track of the project, Brian ruminates on his true value: “I swear about a thousand Indonesian kids will come with me.” This ultimate goal of cultural synthesis is Brian’s purpose, and as he gains experience through a life outside of his room and YouTube videos, his music will become something to hear. Rich Brian is part of a new wave. The forecast calls for rising swells.


Artist: Rich Brian

Album: Amen

Label: 88 Rising and Empire Distribution

Favorite Track: “Little Prince”

If You Like: Higher Brothers, Keith Ape

Shamrocks: 2.5/5

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