We often find ourselves criticizing today’s new breed of hip-hop artists for occupying two extremes of the rap spectrum. They’re either too old-fashioned – making music laced with misogyny and overcooked cash-related tropes – or are completely blind to the genre’s vitally important roots that let the people society persecuted form their own creative narratives. But the 18-year-old Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, with his youthful, semi-ironic approach to the genre, has always sat somewhere in the middle ground.
As a Vine star-turned-rapper, his rise to fame is the kind most post-millennials would mock, unable to decide whether the music he’s making is satirical or serious. When he started out at the age of 14, uploading comedic clips online with viral success soon following, the idea of this Jakarta-hailing kid becoming rap’s next big name seemed a little far-fetched.
And yet here are. Two years after leaving a sour taste in many mouths with his problematic ‘Rich Chigga’ moniker, and an unexpected dropping of the ‘n-bomb’ on his debut single “Dat $tick,” the rapper is on a road to redemption with Amen: a cool-headed collection of songs that try to bat away today’s hip-hop trends at every turn.
While most artists seem wrapped up in the repetitive, Migos-coined ‘triplet flows’, Brian’s style favors his own flow over cadence; it’s confident – so confident in fact, that he’s able to distract from the minor flaws that do exist on his debut entirely. It’s a stretch to say his style is singular – he’s indebted, like most new artists are, to Tyler, the Creator and Childish Gambino – but his ability to put thought into what could’ve been a throwaway cash-in is admirable, to say the least.
It would’ve been easy for Brian to form that front – giving us a Migos Culture II-style record packed to the rafters with cocky references to money, beautiful women and nothing more – but he’s choosing to have a little fun with his lamb-like position in the rap game. He knows he’s young, and despite the pious connotations of his album’s title, Amen doesn’t delve too deeply into anything existential.
Instead, it functions as an intriguing and incisive look into the goofy life of a world famous 18-year-old, one who’s not let fame go to his head quite yet. The album flits between songs about his heritage, his come-up, and the girls he’s met along the way. It’s supercharged and proudly infantile – like a rap-pop record without any of the reductiveness.
It’s impossible not to find something to like about Brian on Amen. Beneath the boisterous brags, there’s touches of kiddish homesickness and fragility; not something you’d have expected to hear on a rap record from a newcomer 10 years ago. ”I’m on the road and I’m lovin’ my bunk / Still missin’ home, but I’m havin’ my fun,” he raps on “See Me,” before joking that he’s the “Indonesian MC Hammer.”
“Don’t test me because my skin ain’t thick”, he commands on “Glow Like Dat,” the first single the record spawned. These references to his own imperfections help us make sense of where he belongs in the rap genre. While he’s grabbed co-signs from some of rap’s most prolific mainstream figures and has managed to permeate late night television, something about the cloud rap-friendly sound of Amen suggests it’ll go down well with Peep and Yung Lean fans too.
If there’s one thing that holds the album back, it’s Brian’s slightly unambitious production. It lacks the hookish, earworm ability his superiors have, and so a few of the songs here have a habit of blurring into each other. There are exceptions though, like the booming, appropriately impure production of the sex-tinged “Kitty.”
Considering its his debut, it’s surprising how much Brian is left free to stand on his own two feet. His label 88rising’s trust in him as an artist in his own right means that he has full command on 70% of Amen, with some versatile collaborators making sporadic stop-offs throughout. They range from fresh-faced and fairly unknown vocalists like AUGUST 08 to contemporary (if problematic) rap royalty like Offset.
On “Attention,” the track that the Migos star jumps on, Brian manages to stand toe-to-toe with Offset’s relentless flow. It’s interesting to see how the two rappers, tied together by viral success, approach this boastful, flex-heavy cut. While Offset sticks to his comfort zone – Patek watches and Bentleys – Brian reels off a series of intelligently crafted, unexpected lines. “I got people locked and loaded like they trained for ISIS,” he lambasts, while crediting his stress-relieving reliance on chamomile tea rather than hard drugs. He might be the newcomer here, but Brian unequivocally comes out on top.
Amen rounds out with a conversation between Brian and a friend, eating chips and discussing the emotional turmoil that stems from watching the season finale of The Office. It’s the figurative icing on a record that never seems to take itself overly serious, but manages to discuss the realities of fame in a way that isn’t overly melodramatic or exploited for lyrical fodder.
It proves Brian’s foray into hip-hop is far from a joke, and though his internet following might suggest something different, he’s still got some way to becoming a rap deity yet. Instead, Amen acts as an accomplished and wildly intriguing scene-setter for a career that’s just beginning.
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