In the hours leading up to the release of their sophomore album, Five Stars, Higher Brothers reflected on their sudden rise to fame via Twitter, looking back at how much has changed in just two short years. In their post, the Chinese quartet reveal how they were all living together in one room “with nothing at all” and now, they’re leading a whole new wave of Asian hip-hop into global territory.
Jumping from the underground Chengdu rap scene to starring in American ads for adidas Originals is a leap by any measure, let alone in such a short space of time. So far, they have proved they have what it takes to smash through both language and cultural barriers, bringing their unique brand of Chinese rap across to international markets. Buoyed by both their association with the 88rising label and the rise of homegrown hip-hop in China, Higher Brothers now have plenty riding on this second full-length record; and for the most part, it works.
Comparisons with Migos undoubtedly helped secure the kind of guest list that plenty of US rappers would kill for, featuring the likes of ScHoolboy Q, JID and even Soulja Boy, as well as label mates such as Rich Brian and NIKI. However, there’s a reason why Pitchfork singled the Higher Brothers out as a clear highlight among all of the acts featured on Head in the Clouds, last year’s 88rising compilation.
Most of the collaborations impress, but as they’ve shown before, Higher Brothers don’t really need anyone else – their own distinct personalities shine on every track. Just a quick glance at the madcap album cover reinforces this, drawing equal inspiration from both the Beatles and the Persona video game series. Although Masiei is clearly the leader, DZknow, Psy.P, and Melo all bring their A-game across a record that barely lets up from the spitfire raps and heavy trap beats the group have become known for.
One key exception to this is the standout single, “Open It Up.” Inspired in part by Playboi Carti, the song trades in the group’s signature beats for something remarkably old school, acting as a perfect introduction to each member’s unique flow. It’s only been two years since the Higher Brothers first started learning English, and yet they effortlessly switch back and forth from their native Sichuanese. Written during one of their recent US tours, the track is particularly fascinating for its lyrics; describing everyday life through a lens unaccustomed to consuming American culture up close. These observations continue across the album in songs like “16 Hours” and “Do It Like Me,” yet the project as a whole is still unmistakably Chinese thanks to a sincere lack of compromise.
International success is usually the end goal for music acts born outside of America, yet aside from their use of English, Higher Brothers don’t seem overly concerned with reinventing their brand for Western appeal. “Gong Xi Fa Cai” works well as a typical brag about riches, but it’s also a proud celebration of Chinese New Year and thus sets itself apart from other songs of its ilk. In fact, it’s rather telling that this distinctly Chinese song was chosen to promote Five Stars as one of the lead singles.
However, describing Five Stars in purely oppositional terms can be somewhat reductive, no matter how tempting it might be to do so. Higher Brothers often expand their scope beyond the album’s Chinese and American influences to incorporate a more internationally minded approach too, something which becomes particularly apparent towards the record's final moments.
Indonesian singer NIKI channels the best of contemporary R&B in her vocals for “No More,” another album highlight that proves swag isn’t the group’s only concern. This would have been a perfectly adept album closer, ending the project on a more reflective, somber note, but the group instead switch things up yet again for one final song called “Zombie” that literally slays from the get go. Japanese-Australian labelmate Joji became the first Asian artist to top the R&B and hip-hop charts in America last year, and while he doesn’t appear on the album in physical form, his production on this standout track is second to none, perfectly channeling the focused and yet frenzied energy that’s become a calling card for the Higher Brothers sound.
Overall, Five Stars doesn’t quite live up to what that ambitious title might suggest. In particular, some of the energy drops off two thirds in, and if you don’t understand what’s being said, it might be easier for some listeners to zone out at this point. However, the linguistic barrier shouldn’t be too much of an issue – after all, there are plenty of English-speaking mumble rappers out there who are far less intelligible and also far less deserving of your time.
Higher Brothers told us last year that they “have a lot to learn” still, and while it’s clear that their music has evolved from their “Made In China” days, any collective like this can only develop so much in such a limited time. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of potential to refine their sound further.
Given what the Higher Brothers have achieved in just two short years, it’s genuinely exciting to imagine what’s next for them and Asian hip-hop as a whole. A true five star album is certainly within their reach and when it does arrive one day soon, there’ll be thousands of fans ready to sing their words back to them in both Chinese and English, no matter where they might tour next.