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”