It may seem extraneous to begin a review of an album by referencing another group of similar ilk, but BROCKHAMPTON immediately comes to mind when thinking of the predominantly Asian collective 88rising. BROCKHAMPTON’s mythos is firmly rooted in the zany, worldly space that the group inhabits — they’re called the “Internet’s First Boy Band” because of it. In the waning days of effective hip-hop collectives, 88rising is one of the only true, new age rap collectives looking to challenge BROCKHAMPTON for its spot. Their new album Head In The Clouds establishes an argument for its existence and the ways that it differs from BROCKHAMPTON and just about any other rap collective in the game. Head In The Clouds is a whirlwind of warm, summer fun that realizes its campiness and is strengthened by it. If you’re looking for lyrical sonnets to assuage your hip-hop tastes, this might not be the project for you. But if you’re open and willing to digest energies instead, you’ll become enamored with it.
“We wanted to make a timeless record, and really create the soundtrack of summer, because summer is a feeling, a whole vibe,” Rich Brian said in a press release back in May. Yes, summer is “a mood,” as social media so puts it these days. Head In The Clouds is summer for the young and unbound; those that party under the dim light of waxing crescent moons on beach sand and mash red and blue buttons in dilapidated arcades. In short, it’s for the youth in middle class neighborhoods. It lacks the pluck of the majority of contemporary hip-hop, but that’s okay - the crossover appeal is there.
88rising was founded in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro, manager of Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, with the goal of building “the Disney for Asian culture.” The management company, digital media brand, and recording label operates out of multiple offices spread across Los Angeles, New York, and Shanghai. First, it was a music collective named CXSHXNLY that worked to bridge the gap between first generation Asian-Americans and hip-hop culture in the U.S., but eventually evolved into something more when they began to work with and discover other international talent.
As of today, twelve artists currently occupy its roster — Brian Puspos, Dumbfoundead, August 08, Higher Brothers, George Miller, Lexie Liu, NIKI, Keith Ape, Josh Pan, Rina Sawayama, Sen Morimoto, and Rich Brian; a majority of artists of Asian descent. While they don’t all appear here, a common theme of phlegmatic bliss permeates the album in their place. We get the sense that 88rising, the music collective, is more about the big picture, which is establishing Asian artists as marketable assets, not die-hard lyricists. They may have worked with industry heavy-hitters like Ghostface Killah and 21 Savage, but they’re not looking to become the most lyrically-skilled iconoclasts in the game, or the weirdest like BROCKHAMPTON. They’re establishing the framework to send more Asian artists here to continue their imprint.
With this in mind, the listener can appreciate the music as a whole, without looking for bars, clever wordplay, or any of what would regularly be analyzed when picking apart rap music. It’s about the moods and situations. The main one? Summer romance with the backdrop of moonlit nights around weakening fires. These concepts take on a figurative sense in the opener “La Cienega,” named after a road in California. NIKI’s raspy, provocative voice is reminiscent of the late Amy Winehouse’s gritty, tantalizing nature as she sings about her dimming appreciation for fame. The production is, if not anything else, bold and brash. The very soul of California and the obtuse mindsets of its weird, fame-obsessed inhabitants can be felt as the song purposefully drags on and on, then on some more. It feels like being around for a slow-motion train wreck where the jaws of the passengers are stretched with spittle flying from their lips, all as the music swells in the background.
While it may lack in the “serious” lyrical department, don’t confuse that for a lack of effort. Although an overarching narrative is absent, a story-like structure remains. Case in point — directly after “La Cienaga” fades into obscurity, the howling mystique of night creeps into the picture with “Red Rubies.” Yung Bans is the first thing we hear here, and, with his distinctive, suggestive voice, his talk of bleeding jewelry sends goosebumps crawling up the spine. It’s almost as if his flagrant verse opens up the profanity floodgates, with Rich Brian and Don Crez confidently strolling in afterwards to talk about “pussy rings” and being wide awake on drugs. MaSiWei tags himself in with some more sexually suggestive rhymes that delve into cringe territory (“I eat her out, make me stomach ache”). Yung Pinch switches it up with a plea for help in a section of unsure realities and bouts of depression. Elsewhere, on “Swimming Pool,” MaSiWei and DZ take things out of the English language, mixing it with Chinese for a unique set of verses that make CashMoneyAP and Akeel Henry’s enigmatic production pop with new life. Hearing 03 Greedo come onto the track is heartbreaking due to the nature of his freedom, but at least hearing his guttural, poppy yells thrive in such a space reminds fans and shows new ones that he’s one of the most creative new artists to grace the booth.
Head In The Clouds runs for seventeen tracks, and summer love can only be approached from so many angles before the intrigue begins to fade. Summer love often equates to lusting after quick fixes, so this primal sense of sexual conquest and the disappointments it brings plays a large role in the album's mood. “Midsummer Madness” is the album’s centerpiece. The track flows like morning river water, a breakup occurring in slow motion thanks to the arrival of warm weather and sober realizations. Joji’s chorus belongs on pop radio, and its softness plays a large part in the song’s innocent appeal.
“Warpaint” is another breakup soundtrack song, with NIKI describing the plight of a warrior as it enables her to cope with happy couples that she finds around town. She sounds desperate when finding light in the darkness to soak up. At times, it feels like she makes up one side of Head In The Clouds’ ongoing relationship and the guys, singing about their failures, make up the other. NIKI’s confidence belies the sound of her voice with “Step aside, I’m moving through/All by myself, I don’t need you.” This simple boast sends sharp electric jolts through the spine because it dismantles the false certainty that 88rising’s other members rap and sing with.
When the album strays from its tepid ambience, the lack of polished, well-covered rap stylings gets exposed. “Disrespectin” with the Higher Brothers and Rich Brian, clearly wants to a bombastic trap anthem but suffers from being more humdrum than hard. It lacks the overpowering bravado to make their boilerplate boasts anything more than frightened squeaks. The album builds up a marketable, juvenile aesthetic that threatens to be dismantled with “If they poppin’ set we gon air ’em out like a mattress” and other gun threats that admittedly sound like jokes. It could have been shaved from the tracklist without anyone missing it.
Even if it’s one of the more commercial, the majority of the album’s smooth, innocuous style makes it one of the year’s more interesting releases. 88rising understands the game more than they let on, and its three years of operation have given birth to a necessary project that will stretch the game’s parameters more than anyone can probably guess. The conflicting voices and teenage angst of it all can be felt in waves throughout the tracklist, and the Chinese rapping adds exciting parameters to their sound. Trap music isn’t their thing, but 88rising thrives when they focus on the sound that they understand. Head In The Clouds is a maelstrom of summer angst, love, and turmoil. Bottling these emotions in one album, spread out through nearly a dozen artists and surprise features is a hard task, but the collective manages to pull it off in thrilling fashion. There won’t be any BROCKHAMPTON comparisons here. The collective carves their own niche, and, if they stick with it, no one will come anywhere close to occupying their space.
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