RL Grime is known as one of the fathers of trap, if not the messiah.
He belongs to a heritage of electronic production known as trap - not to be confused with the Southern-birthed hip hop subgenre “trap” (popularized in modern times by artists like Migos and Future) that is a mostly Afro/ghettocentric movement centered around drug-related storytelling. RL Grime’s trap, sometimes referred to as EDM trap, is almost the opposite – it is nearly always an entirely instrumental track, and made nearly always by a white/Euro bedroom producer. Both genres share some aspects though – the use of rapid hi hats, the 808 bass, the drug culture (except with middle-class whites); instead of the vocals and the lyrics as the centerpiece, EDM trap focuses on the instrumental.
Trap very much originated as a sort of remixing fad; the subgenre’s origins are generally agreed upon to be pioneer Flosstradamus’s iconic 2012 remix of Major Lazer’s “Original Don”. It was all about taking an already popular song and making it more intense through honing on the bass drop and giving it an overall fresher, more “unleashed” flavor.
RL Grime grew to superstar popularity through many ways – disc jockeying at places like the Boiler Room, publishing mixes online (his annual Halloween Mix saga, which is on its sixth volume now, is far and above the most celebrated trap mix series of all time) – but mainly through producing remixes of already popular songs. His biggest hits include remixes of Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”, Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction”, Kanye West’s “Mercy”, Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa”, and The Weeknd’s “The Hills”.
On top of his revered remixes, he is responsible for some of the biggest festival bangers in trap history: “Tell Me” with What So Not, “Waiting” with What So Not and Skrillex, “Infinite Daps” with Baauer, and the motley crew of top trap hits from his first album VOID like “Scylla”, “Kingpin”, “Valhalla”, and arguably trap’s true genre-defining anthem, “Core”. He is characterized by his hypertextured melodies, vocal mixing and integration skills, and his atmosphere – dark and menacing, à la Halloween.
Trap was in some ways an offshoot of dubstep: still obsessed with bass drops, but less dubby and more variability in structure and tempo – trap feels a lot more mobile, and in that way more thrilling, than dubstep. Trap has become the umbrella term for a whole horde of distinct sonic witchcraft – from the glassy, textured synthscapes of Flume to the bass-heavy detonations of Boombox Cartel to the minimalist, industrial fireworks of TroyBoi, trap covers a lot of ground.
While trap has been mostly confined to the underground, it did spend some time in mainstream pop chart notoriety; 2013-2014 saw big Billboard hits in Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”, DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”, and Martin Garrix’s “Animals”.
The ideology of trap music is represented within the structure of a trap artist’s oeuvre: all singles. Generally, there is no concept, or sense of symbolism occurring within any song – listeners seek a fresh, satisfying drop that will give their brain an intense, emotional reaction. Therefore, artists release almost all their songs as singles – there is no need for an exposition, a rising action, or a conclusion; it’s a style of instant-gratification and endless climax. While it is popular to release an EP of a few popular singles, many highly-regarded trap artists have never produced a single album (see: QUIX, Vincent, Ekali, graves), because especially when you are participating in a world so underground, and on a platform like SoundCloud where it is all about streams – and something like an interlude would not get many replays - there is not much of an incentive to produce an album besides sheer creative ambition.
Of the few trap albums out there, many of them, like TroyBoi’s Left Is Right and Hucci’s 404, are just compilations of hard-hitting singles. Only a few, like Flume’s Skin or What So Not’s Not All The Beautiful Things, feel like traditional albums.
RL Grime’s NOVA is a combination of both strains. While each track feels almost like a classical symphony – a royal, polyrhythmic composition that could stand on its own – everything is cohesive, and there are highs and lows like a three-act film.
What is especially interesting about NOVA is how akin it feels to RL’s last album, VOID. Not just syntactically (NOVA versus VOID, as titles) or thematically (NOVA is the yang – a bright release of power, he describes it as a star expanding “endlessly until its light is all you can see” – to VOID’s dark, sinister yin) but sonically; a lot of the tracks on NOVA, with their grandiose, unstoppable vigor, could sit alongside ones on VOID - especially considering how evenly matched they are, genre-wise; the mix of classic trap, future bass (low frequency oscillating-saw synths, a la Flume or Whethan), and drum n’ bass is numerically similar on both records.
While it is admirable that he was able to stay so consistent with his previous, highly doted-upon disc, it is also frustrating – there is not so much a sense of regression, but a sense of lack of progression (like he is still stuck in 2014), that brings down NOVA. That is not to say that the album is not full of trap masterpieces – it is, and as the genre itself has drifted and dwindled since its peak a few years ago, NOVA feels like an ode to trap and all its compartments.
The opening track, “Feel Free”, is one of those masterpieces. It begins with a pattern of exotic, tribal-tinged chime percussion that sets up an air of playful mystique; when the consonant synths kick in along with an up-pitched, female vocal chanting “I won’t be afraid”, the tone of the album is set: jubilant, boundless energy. The bass drops like a spaceship blasting off into outer space: it is the nova, a star that precipitously increases in brightness. As the nova eventually returns to its original state, so does the song: after the second drop, the track fades with a gradual, peaceful 30 second outro.
One of the more compelling aspects of RL’s music is how it commands your emotions; his sound is almost the complete inverse of ambient: it is thick, accessible, and filling. Listening to “Feel Free”, and the following drum n’ bass-infused track “Shrine” (featuring great vocals from pop singer Freya Ridings), it is hard to feel anything but a sense of endless rising, of being carried away into the heavens by the interminable synths and operatic vocal reverberations. NOVA is an objection to nihilism: it represents a life full of the truest, purest, most radiant light, with everything full of meaning and emotion.
And while this does not really mean anything by itself, it is a vision. RL Grime describes the music-making process for NOVA as a sort of “visualization,” in which he thought of “places and moments” in his head and ascribed sounds to fit them.
Sometimes what makes a track stand out - especially in the ocean of trap where the waves of bass and melody congregate as one gushing stream in the ears of a listener – are the little off-bits: the intricately glitched-out samples, the unconventional slices of percussion; lead single “I Wanna Know”, for example, begins with a distinct, polished-yet-lo-fi bit of percussion that immediately brings about an air of nostalgia. The evocative beat is then complemented with a dreamy, pastel vocal performance by synth pop singer Daya; even though the lead spirals into a trademark RL buildup and drop, the track feels refreshing because of the mood established in the beginning.
Another track, “Rainer”, contains a minute-long plus intro subsisting of almost entirely a washed-out, humid synth fluttering back and forth cautiously around the low end, which is alluring in itself but also establishes an atmosphere of awe and impending intensity: the soundscape is then fully realized with stuttering vocal chops and pounding drums that surround the listener, climaxing in a Flume-like bass drop with a repeating kick that marches on top of a rapidly oscillating, crystalline synth, like a glass wall that is getting punched over and over again but refuses to break; as it is the penultimate track, it probably symbolizes the total and complete ascension of the nova. In this track, RL Grime’s pacing skill is at play – what initially seems like a sluggish, slow-developing synth turns into the perfect foil for the drop’s raging flutter.
The problem with having a 15-track album of the most hot-blooded, heart-rending electronic music conceivable is that it becomes too much after a while – corny, almost, even with RL’s skillset.
Luckily, there are a few breaks in the scheme. On “Pressure” – the most hotly anticipated track of the album (first teased in his 2017 Halloween mix) – RL drops the bass harder than he has ever done before. The title describes it perfectly: it is pressure, real tectonic pressure, the feeling of a digital sledgehammer coming down like the Hand of God and shattering the ground all around you into pixels; there is even a cheeky distorted cough effect before each bass section, as if the Church of RL Grime is laughing at you from the heavens (or hell). The track is an interesting pivot away from what he has usually been producing and towards what the entirety of trap’s sound is generally shifting to (from producers like Boombox Cartel, REZZ, and TYNAN): more industrial, gritty, bass-heavy dingers. “Pressure” provides a relieving amount of darkness amidst the almost blinding mass of light.
Another one of the more original numbers on NOVA is “Shoulda”. While it is not exactly the type of sonic devastation that exists on “Pressure”, it is not a source of light, either; the track begins with a repeating vocal “In my,” that is pitched to match a shade of low end synth that slowly rises in volume like a cloud closing in overhead. The melody is layered in nostalgia and the sense that time is disappearing with ever passing drum hit, complemented by equally desperate sounding vocals; the storm swells and eventually releases into a tsunami of glassy, dewy-eyed emotion, as the vocals chant “I shoulda let you go” in sync and the synths undulate like time spiraling away, forever.
Most of the other instrumental-focused tracks – like “Era” and “Reims”, in particular – suffer not just from hints of unoriginality (“Reims” is a boring, slightly more vibrant version of his 2016 “Aurora” hit and “Era” is another luxurious, empyrean symphony – a tired model, at its point in the album anyway) but actually from the album’s rollout method. Since RL spent the amount of time he did on the album, he let a sizable portion of the tracks loose as singles to keep his fans entertained. What started off as striking tracks would then go on to be mixed into the sets of other popular artists, and made into dozens of new tracks themselves via the art of remixing (the “Reims” flip by Enschway & LUUDE is better than the original); these tracks suffered from being overplayed months before the album even came out.
On top of these instrumentals, RL assembles a parcel of pop and rap-pitched tunes, like the aforementioned “I Wanna Know” with Daya and “Shrine” with Freya Ridings tracks. The only other pop-specific track is “Light Me Up” starring Miguel and Julia Michaels, which would be a perfect midnight set closer – dripping in emotion both lyrically “So baby light me up / You can breathe me in” and sonically, with hypnotic vocal performances and a melody that vibrates with color like a kaleidoscope of love – except for the fact that, ironically, there are a bunch of ideal set closers on NOVA: “Shrine”, “Light Me Up”, “Reims”, “I Wanna Know”, “Rainer” – all would foster sufficient-enough happy vibes to close a trap concert. It is unfortunate that some of RL’s best work on this album is – seemingly inevitably – getting lost in itself, because of how magnificent it is.
Except for the rap-trap tracks, though.
Of the four songs with hip hop features – “Undo” (Jeremih and Tory Lanez), “Take It Away” (Ty Dolla $ign and TK Kravitz), “OMG” (Chief Keef and Joji), and “UCLA” (24hrs) – the middle two are the only ones worth talking about.
While both “Undo” and “UCLA” showcase RL’s immaculate soundscape in force – especially the cosmic Travis Scott Rodeo-core breakdown in “Undo” around two minutes in – there is nothing especially provoking or absorbing enough in the vocal performances or backing instrumentals of either to sanction much replay value.
“Take It Away”, on the other hand, immediately captures your attention with what sounds like an astral siren – a croaky, alien synth that waves up and down like a flag in the wind. And then Ty Dolla $ign’s gritty, humanite voice intrudes into the channel with “We just landed in your city” which enhances the feeling that these sounds are from some extraterrestrial otherworld. While the drop on this track is nothing new (standard future bass flare), what is remarkable is RL Grime’s mixing abilities.
Too often on trap and rap crossover tracks does one half of the ingredient (either the vocalist or the instrumental) overpower the other (see: Ekali and Denzel Curry’s “Babylon”); it is incredibly hard to build a song in which both components work together and drive each other forward in an original and gratifying way (see: Flume and Vince Staples’ “Smoke & Retribution” – the gold standard for a perfectly engineered rap and trap mashup). The way that RL manages to utilize the textures of all the different components in this track is exceptional, and turns what would be a somewhat insubstantial future bass song into an intergalactic adventure.
RL does this even better on “OMG”. Although the lyrics are silly, if not trite (“Flexin’ on my exes, oh my god”), it is not about the lyrics but about the voice as an instrument itself. Joji’s hook is ripping: it sounds like a more menacing, unmitigated version of Travis Scott’s “3500” hook. In that song, the voice and the backing appear separate, detached – as if Travis is riding the musical wave. In “OMG”, Joji is the wave: the instrumental covers his voice like a set of armor, declaring him as the dark knight of RL’s sinister trap kingdom. Chief Keef is also great in this track; the instrumental tames down appropriately to match his ominous hum, creating an uneasy atmosphere (as well as serving as an apt contrast to Joji’s bursting hook that emerges once again after Keef’s verse).
The result of all these enjoyable tracks – titanic banger after titanic banger – is that the album sort of buckles under its own weight. That is not to say that almost every track is not a masterpiece in its own right; RL Grime does an excellent job at keeping NOVA mobile by switching up the styles constantly, à la future bass here, drum n’ bass there, some darker, some lighter; in such a hefty mishmash it seems almost required for a few to get blown over as collateral.
But it does also seem like RL experienced a bit of tunnel vision while producing this album; combining the pressure he must have felt to put out great content after such a long time and the willfulness required to make something that is, evidently, so consistent with what he had originally envisioned (or at least the “core ideas” are, as he said in an interview) suggests that from the get-go, he did not feel the need to stray far from the (his) path. NOVA feels like a callback to the golden age of trap (2013-2014) because, essentially, it was made for the golden age of trap.
And electronic trap has altered dramatically since 2014, enduring through new, interesting sounds and sonic experimentation (and massive bass drops, like “Pressure”). While NOVA is a graceful, cinematic experience, the entirety of its soundscape is (mostly) overplayed: if it does not feel boring or safe yet, it will next year.
It will be especially interesting to see how RL Grime produces going forward. He has enough of a following to continue putting out his masterclass, “movie soundtrack” trap, and remain as a headliner for concerts – but if he wants to garner an expanded audience (and make a significant statement regarding his artistic potential), he will need to innovate.
Despite a few of the tracks feeling watered-down, or too over the top, RL Grime is at his best form in NOVA – unfortunately, it is a couple years too late.
TOP: “Feel Free”, “Shrine”, “OMG”, “Shoulda”, “Pressure”, “I Wanna Know”, “Rainer”
BOTTOM: “Undo”, “Reims”, “UCLA”
Music collective 88rising’s debut group album, Head In The Clouds, was released on July 20, 2018. The album features a potpourri of Asian artistry, with output from the likes of Rich Brian, Joji, NIKI, AUGUST 08, Higher Brothers, Keith Ape, and more.
Since its inception in 2015, 88rising has witnessed a meteoric rise in popularity and influence. Founder Sean Miyashiro went from working out of his car in a Bronx parking lot to operating multiple offices across the world in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Shanghai. From the beginning, his mission was ambitious: trying to create “the Disney for Asian culture.”
Specifically, Miyashiro never wanted 88rising to be another “label” or a hip-hop company that just “covered the culture”; he wanted it to inspire ingenuity. He saw it as a hybrid label-production-marketing culturescape that could connect the East and the West, and a network that would thrive in both the old world (music concerts, tours) and the new world (digital production, streaming networks).
88rising has succeeded in doing this since the beginning. Miyashiro’s first signed artist was none other than Rich Brian, a YouTube meme-icon-turned-serious rapper who rose to fame after releasing a self-produced rap video in 2016, “Dat $tick”, that now has over 98 million views. Several months later, Miyashiro compounded this digital energy into a new channel (88rising’s official channel) with a video titled “Rappers React To Rich Brian.” This instant-viral hit brought old and new school rappers together to watch “Dat $tick”. Miyashiro then used 88rising’s growing reputation to find offline success immediately, signing more artists and eventually pulling off sold-out tours in both Asia and the United States.
One of 88rising’s most impressive attributes is its sonic versatility; the group appeals to a wide spectrum of audiences, as it comprises hip hop artists, “trap” style rappers, R&B singers, genre-blending experimentalists, and more. 88rising brought these diverse Asian musicians to the forefront of the American (and global) charts in a way that no other collective has ever done, and in an incredibly tight timespan.
Today, 88rising is a media monolith; its YouTube channel has almost 2 million subscribers, its name is attached to a plethora of big stars, and its history of production includes some of the most original content in today’s underground and mainstream music worlds.
And that’s why Head In The Clouds is so disappointing.
Over the course of its 17 tracks, Clouds does what it’s billed: the dreamy, tormented flow of Joji’s purling floats with NIKI’s husky, smoky groove (“La Cienega”); Higher Brothers spit relentlessly alongside Rich Brian (“Red Rubies”); and sometimes they all come together, like on the single “Midsummer Madness” which features Rich Brian, Joji, Higher Brothers, NIKI, and the fruity-toned AUGUST 08.
But in the group’s attempt to mesh together their mélange of genres and cultures into something fun, they lose what makes them special: their story. They are ambitious in the wrong ways.
Clouds was advertised as a summer soundtrack: a bouncy, jamtastic beach score. For a music group that seeks to influence – and has the potential to influence – the culture, an overtly simplistic “summer jams playlist” seems rather ineffectual, and more of a show of “look at what we have” rather than “look at what we can do.”
And this becomes especially problematic when, in addition to being aimless, the album is also muddy and inconsistent.
The album opens with “La Cienega”, which is named after the Los Angeles arterial road that runs up through the Hollywood Strip. NIKI and Joji dance around thoughts of entrapment and loneliness, as their once-desired fame now suffocates them. As an opener, its instant introspectiveness – pouncing on your emotions with surprising efficiency - is of note; it is, however, decidedly boring, because its story - “fame gone wrong”- is a tale told time and time again.
Joji’s tendency to write lyrically innocuous tracks may be surprising considering his history. He was once, like Rich Brian (and even more so), a premier YouTube meme celebrity known for his “FilthyFrank/Pink Guy” personality, which focused on him doing ridiculous things like prancing around in a pink vagina costume, or bathing in ounces of ramen. A few years ago, he decided, though, that he did not want to live with this “personality” anymore.
He would agonize over the thought that this was it, that he would never amount to anything better than what he was doing; he faced constant anxiety and stress-induced seizures about the thought of diverting from this path. In 2017, Joji stopped FilthyFrank, and he began working with 88rising to produce some of the most exciting, original digital content in recent times; this included wild music videos that exhibited him doing things like lying in a tub of blood (“will he”) and crawling around in an empty swimming pool in a monster costume (“demons”). He stated that he joined the 88rising crew expressly because they were not afraid to “step foot in every medium” and “experiment.”
It is frustrating, then, that Joji’s tracks are so constantly impersonal and normative. Instead of hearing about his inspiring personal struggles, he gives us trite poems (“Lately I’ve been on my own / I knew you having fun with me”) that could be replaced by those of any other downtempo, vague and wistful girls-fame-loneliness R&B or hip hop track. But it is not just Joji; the entire crew on Clouds is directionless.
After “La Cienega” is “Red Rubies” – a highlight of the album. Although lyrically unimpressive, Y2K’s production is stellar, with a floaty, cloud rap sensitivity that goes hard. With Rich Brian riding the beat supremely per usual, and a great Yung Bans hook (“Red rubies and they bleed”) and Yung Pinch feature, this song is one of the few tracks with more than two people that has a cohesive buoyancy.
In contrast, some of the others like hip hop tracks “Midsummer Madness” and “Japan 88” are undone solely through their stacking of so many voices. The former features great performances by AUGUST 08 and DZ (of Higher Brothers), but it is ruined by a dreadful autotune job in the form of Joji’s (endlessly) recurring, horse-like whinnying “Ru-u-u-ules” hook. And the latter, a remix of rapper Famous Dex’s fantastic “Japan”, is a major lowlight for Clouds; in this edition, hip hop artist Verbal disrupts Dex’s clean flow with some atrocious, off-kilter lyric delivery in “See my chain chain, it’s been cold / See my gang gang, see how deep we roll” and Keith Ape provides a disappointing, empty verse, with each lined punctuated by an irritating “uh, yuh” ad lib that further damages whatever satisfying essence the original song had. Both tracks hold little replay value, as even though some of the verses may be appealing, the entire songs are difficult to get through.
As suggested by the title Head In The Clouds, a big theme of the album is “living in a dreamy world” and this is conveyed by melodies, samples, and verses that induce nostalgia, and/or the sense of living life in an old movie. Tracks like “Swimming Pool”, “Lover Boy 88”, and “Poolside Manor” especially feel like they could have been plucked from an 80s or 90s film soundtrack (or a coming-of-age 2010s film engineered to induce nostalgia, like in the case of Rich Brian’s more digitized-sounding, clinical production on “History” and the excellent Generation Z pop culture-riddled music video attached to it).
Screenshot from Rich Brian's "History" music video. The video hits on the hearts of Millennials and Gen Zers by compiling the most iconic television/movie relationships of the past couple decades, for example the cult classic "The Office" relationship of Jim Halpert (pictured) and Pam Beesly (not pictured).
“Lover Boy 88”, one of the main feel-feeders, is another remix, this time of the idiosyncratic alternative artist Phum Viphurit’s “Lover Boy” anthem. Meeting best friends, the past, old darlings – the happy reminiscence vibe is ever present in both the lyrics and the instrumental. It is perhaps the most exciting track on the album, as rappers MaSiWei and DZ of Higher Brothers supply a mix of energy (MaSiWei) and youthful passion (DZ) to complement Viphurit’s rich, soulful hum in an unexpected but charming way.
Alternatively, there are some tracks that do not mesh well with the summer/dream world concept. In particular, the middle-of-album rap threesome of “Beam”, “Disrespectin”, and “Let It Go” stick out like sore thumbs in comparison to the rest of the mostly diaphanous, light, R&B heavy cast of songs.
Unlike “Red Rubies” which has a dreamy, cloud rap instrumental, “Beam” and “Disrespectin” are standard trap songs. It seems like for “Beam” (which would have been much better as a single), the celebrated trap giant Playboi Carti is there just to be there. Although Murda Beatz provides excellent production per usual (see: Bless Yo Trap review), the beat ends up sounding like something off Carti’s latest album, Die Lit, instead of a Rich Brian (or 88rising) track. “Disrespectin” is another case of too many forced on one track, as while Rich Brian and Higher Brothers are fine, AUGUST 08’s erratically-pitched hook “Better hide your bitch / Disrespect all on my wrist” makes it substandard; the bass heavy instrumental, also, is jarring, as it makes the track sound like your head is in the ground, not the clouds. Both tracks are not awful at all, though - “Beam”, especially, is a great Rich Brian (or Playboi Carti) banger - but they do detract from the album’s flow and supposed concept.
“Let It Go” by Higher Brothers, featuring trap rapper BlocBoy JB, is severely drab and emotionless. The beat evokes feelings of bouncing on a pogo stick, each time crashing your head into a metallic ceiling. Like the Carti feature, JB’s appearance is neither warranted nor particularly interesting; it seems like both were put on their respective tracks to provide a sense of “legitimacy” for the harder, more rap-oriented tracks, as if Rich Brian and Higher Brothers could not hold it up or would not be appealing enough on their own (which is probably true - but supplanting experimentation and the hard work necessary to brew a better song with unfitting, “safe” features is a poor artistic statement to make).
Intermingled between these rap songs are about as many R&B tracks, all starring almost exclusively either NIKI, AUGUST 08, or Joji.
After the opener “La Cienega”, the next rhythm and blues ditty is “Plans” (although the dull electro-summer-rap “Peach Jam” starring Joji and BlocBoy JB (again) feels like it could be classified as R&B). While the instrumental is pleasant, and both NIKI and feature artist Vory parley over it with an appropriate melodic demeanor, the ballad lacks substance; its chorus “If I got plans then you got plans / If I got plans then you got plans / Tell your hatin’ ass mans that you got a girlfriend” feels more like pseudo-emotional filler than a dedicated attempt at making something appropriately passionate.
While “Plans” is an augur for most of the other R&B/non-rap tracks – similarly uninspired - there are a couple standouts, in particular “Poolside Manor” and “Head In The Clouds”. In the former, NIKI and AUGUST 08 perform a powerful duet over an exotic instrumental with a melody that captures a very particular 90s eerie-dream essence; the hypnotic little earworm crescendo-riffs that pop up every now and then also help to make the track memorable. On “Head”, the final track - which is more poppy than specifically R&B - Joji finally clears his head, singing about how he should not compromise his personality for someone else. This is probably Joji at the most genuine we have seen him, as it is potentially speaking on his past struggles with multiple personas (YouTube versus real life). Although his voice is laboriously autotuned (per usual), the track has a chart pop flavor that is enjoyable.
The other two R&B pieces are as equally disappointing as “Plans”. “Warpaint” by NIKI, with its tedious “Everyday, I put my warpaint on / I’m a warrior” chorus and unadventurous instrumental backing, comes across as a low effort amalgamation of a Lana del Rey flow and a Katy Perry inspirational mantra track (see: “Roar” or “Rise”). The following song, “I Want In” by AUGUST08 and NIKI, offers her no redemption. While both vocalists provide satisfying verses, and the melody has a sort of rousing, tropical energy, the “story” that is being told - like NIKI’s other tracks on this tape - is unbearably banal.
The watered-down content present in almost every track represents the biggest problem with Clouds; the group has a lack of ambition towards taking advantage of, and talking about, what they are: an insurgency. At 88rising’s most basic level of operation (so, excluding Miyashiro's mission to make an Asian Disney), they are seeking to promote Asian hip hop artists to the mainstream in a way like never before. That, in itself, is an attempt to topple decade-old standards, and change the tendency for Asian artists to be underrepresented (and penetrate the Afro and White-dominated American hip hop culturescape).
And they are doing it well (think: Rich Brian's “History” music video that locks down on the 16-21 year old demographic). Even though most of the 88rising crew probably do not have many radio plays to their name, they succeed well in the environment that has itself superseded the radio: the digital world. When Rich Brian released his debut album Amen back in February and it hit number one on the iTunes hip hop chart, it was considered a huge deal as he was the first solo Asian to do so in history.
On that album (which was far from perfect), he kept the features minimal and made an honest effort to impress with his production, lyricism, and vocal performances. For him and the other artists on Clouds, all sense of honesty has been excised.
Almost every member on the album is from a different Asian country - Rich Brian and NIKI from Indonesia, Joji from Japan, Higher Brothers from China, Keith Ape from South Korea - but instead of delving deep into how their diverse cultures affect their lives and their music and their interactions with each other, they placate their unassuming audiences with callously mundane, “Americanized” (or White-ified) tales of romance and self-discovery that have already been beaten to death throughout American pop chart history.
All that being said, this album will stream well, and 88rising fans will be satisfied; Rich Brian fans and Joji fans and NIKI fans will have something to bite on for another month. But Clouds is not memorable; there is no song that stands out like Rich Brian’s “Dat $tick” or Keith Ape’s “It G Ma”.
And while it may seem harsh to demand something intensely unique out of a group’s baby-steps album (and especially one engineered to be an accessible summer feels album), it is not unrealistic to expect something enjoyable to listen to. Clouds fulfills on neither the surface-level satisfaction front nor the thoughtful satisfaction front. The result is an unsavory beach burger covered in sand.
Sometimes, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Lacking in originality and a cohesive concept, Clouds is a step in the wrong direction for the wave-making 88rising crew.
TOP: “Red Rubies”, “Loverboy 88”, “Poolside Manor”
BOTTOM: “Peach Jam”, “Plans”, “Let It Go”, “Warpaint”, “Japan 88”
Smokepurpp's collaborative mixtape with producer Murda Beatz, Bless Yo Trap, was released on April 13, 2018 (along with a “deluxe-edition” that followed the next week).
The Miami-based Smokepurpp (Omar Piniero, born 1997) first grew to fame a few years ago after a couple SoundCloud singles (most notably “Audi.” which later featured on his 2017 debut mixtape Deadstar) went viral. He is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of the hip-hop subgenre “SoundCloud rap” (hybrid of trap rap, mumble rap, and more) along with other rising rappers like Lil Pump, Ski Mask the Slump God, Trippie Redd, and the late Lil Peep and XXXTentacion.
His co-star, the Canadian Murda Beatz (Shane Lindstrom, born 1994), has become a prolific trap beat producer over the years through his networking skills, collaborating with big names like Drake, Migos, Travis Scott, and others. He also has some of the best producer tags in the game (see: "Murda on the beat so it's not nice" and "I ain't really finna tell y'all how to get away with murder and shit").
Murda Beatz's sound is trademarked by booming, powerful bass (and for a SoundCloud type beat, emblematically distorted (similar to other big names like Ronny J)). His ingenuity is emblazoned with Purpp, whose fondness for instrumentals studded with “the weirdest sounds” and “random industrial shit” allowed Murda to experiment with unique samples and drum patterns on this mixtape.
While Deadstar spawned some of, probably, Purpp’s best tracks - “Drop”, “Audi.”, “Fingers Blue” - it was a sonic mess, all bass and no base. Bless is significantly more dense – 10 tracks versus 18 – and has much less filler, but it still runs into some of the same problems.
It is easy to mentally check yourself out from the entire SoundCloud era-spawned rap canon when you hear a hook like “Aye, I smoke big dope / I smoke big dope / I smoke big dope (yuh)” (“Big Dope”). A closer look reveals Purpp fighting against the constraints of sophistication with purpose, however; in an interview with Noisey Radio back in 2017, he flaunts his status as a leader of the “ignorant” rap movement.
His fans – the male, age 14-21 demographic – live for these catchy, simplistic verses that “go hard” and represent the Post-Millennial, Instagram-is-life, instant gratification, “fuck school, fuck institutions, I just want clout and head” aesthetic. An overtly dumbed-down hook, an unrelenting spew of expensive car/clothing and drug references, and an anthemic disregard for the rights and feelings of women, and you have the average Smokepurpp (or any up-tempo SoundCloud rapper) banger.
While it may seem like Purpp is getting too much credit, his formula is effective; it is easy to compare Purpp’s lyrics to those of a big hitter like Kendrick Lamar – whose lyrics function better both sonically and ethically – and then feel disdain towards Purpp, but it is not necessarily a fair comparison. They are hitting to different fields.
Purpp, along with other up-tempo SoundCloud/ignorant era rappers, writes his lyrics based on overall Club Banger Potential; he is liberating in his ignorance, targeting the come-up (thus, played in a club as a tune to get people hyped) of drugs and alcohol, and the feeling of being on top of what is a world in which you have no control. No control over, for example, things like destiny (the formulaic American ‘high school, college, job’ progression) and relationships (the now Instagram and Snapchat-dominated romantic world ruled by increasingly harder to understand social codes and semantics).
So, Purpp’s writing is almost as effective as it can be in appealing to his people. In fact, there’s almost a sense of reverse-pretention; instead of penning showy, big words that would restrict uneducated listeners from comprehension, Purpp’s lyrics are riddled with a so-dumbed-down colloquial lexicon that any non-trap fan, general music listener would not be able to understand much of what he raps about. Lines like “Look at my neck and it’s snowin’” (“Pockets”) would puzzle anyone who does not know that “snowin’” is short for “owning expensive jewelry.” And while it is not fair to give Purpp any creator credit for employing this abbreviated afro/gangsta/trapper style of writing that belongs to all those who came before him (and acknowledging that these types of songs can still appeal to the vast public, see: "Gucci Gang" or "Bad and Boujee"), it is evident that he has mastered the art of using simple, hype buzzwords (“Big Dope”, “Audi.”, “Drop”) to an exceptional, ignorant-hype effect.
This is not to say that there are no lyrical highlights on Bless – Purpp pulls out the thesaurus on “Good Habits” for “Your bitch tryna find the circumference / And I got hoes in abundance”. Another interesting textual tidbit is Purpp’s affection for school-referencing bars like “She take the dick like an assignment” and “Keep a dirty Glock in my Jansport” (Jansport being the popular middle school/high school backpack). Perhaps this comes from the 21 year-old Purpp feeling like he is still in high school, as he dropped out years ago… to pursue rapping.
Despite some good lyrical moments on Bless, Smokepurpp’s bars are pretty much interchangeable with almost any other up-tempo SoundCloud rapper. What makes Bless Yo Trap work is the mood – brought on both by Purpp’s vocal style and Murda Beatz’s sinister soundscape.
On the title track “123”, for example, Murda’s drums are organized purposefully “offset” (percussion and hi-hats displaced) which would sound weird isolated but gives the track, when combined with Purpp’s aggressive flow and paranoia-addled ad-libs, a unique, on-edge feel. While most of the tracks could be played in a club to a mosh-pit-effect, some of the especially hard highlights include “Do Not Disturb” (featuring fellow trappers Lil Yachty and Migos’s Offset) and “Pray” (featuring A$AP Ferg). The former is unrelenting in its sense of doom, with a melody that feels like a heart pulsing with paranoia. The latter sounds like a sonic representation of a jailbreak – highlighted by a catchy Ferg hook with a vibe probably inspired by his Plain Jane hit.
Another one of my favorites off the mixtape was the interlude-length “Good Habits”, which includes some excellent industrial-flavored, clanging-metal synths.
Beyond the bangers are some slight reprieves where both Purpp and Murda ditch their almost overbearing flare for sonic devastation for some lighter hype tunes; while the lyrical content remains consistently ignorant (“Pockets”: “I wanna fuck but she boring (huh) / Fuck a friend, money important”), Murda’s bass is less aggressive and Purpp’s tone is less hostile, with Purpp even donning a sing-songy voice heavily autotuned. The autotune aesthetic is used at its best in “Bumblebee”, which could (and should) be categorized as a cloud rap track, sharing clear sonic similarities with the likes of Bladee.
Besides the aforementioned tracks, everything else is pretty drab. It runs into the same problems as Deadstar in that there is no theme or cohesive structure to the album – no exposition, no climax, no resolution – and so after you listen to it, it is hard to pick apart what you liked versus what you did not like, besides the few standout tracks.
While Bless fares better in this regard than Deadstar due to its shrunken track list, that in itself is more of a copout than a praiseworthy musical decision; the best tracks on Bless are not necessarily better than the best tracks on Deadstar, they just have less filler in between them. And with Purpp’s tracks always so short (usually 2-3 minutes, another staple of the SoundCloud style), there is not that much to enjoy. Especially towards the end of the album (after “Bumblebee”), the production gets lazier and Purpp provides nothing interesting, vocally, to shake off the monotony.
Smokepurpp and Murda Beatz’s Bless Yo Trap may not reveal any artistic progression (since Deadstar), but it does have some memorable, playlist-worthy tracks for those who enjoy the mindless hype style of ignorant rap, and presents a good case to be on-the-lookout for Murda Beatz’s future production.
TOP: “Big Dope”, “Do Not Disturb”, “Good Habits”, “Pray”, “Bumblebee”
BOTTOM: “Mayo”, “Ways”, “For The Gang”