Whom do you think of first, when it comes to rappers? Just a few decades ago, rappers were the underdogs of the music industry, speaking up for the minorities and discussing social issues that were considered taboo (for example: "Fuck The Police" by N.W.A., a social commentary on police brutality towards African-Americans). This soon changed with the rise of popular rap: lyrics soon evolved to evoke the “flexing” of a luxurious lifestyle most wouldn’t dare to dream about. Rap didn’t seem like an exclusive club anymore; it was something more and more people had access to, and many teenagers choose this as a career path, teaching themselves the ways through the internet.
That was how Brian Imanuel started. A kid who learned English from watching YouTube videos, he was exposed to rap music on YouTube in 2012, courtesy of his internet friends,. After his viral music video "Dat $tick" caught my attention, I found it impossible to keep my eyes off of him (and not just because of his tacky pink polo and fanny pack). He wasn’t just a young rapper—he represented something bigger. He represented a lot of oppressed Asian teenagers' dreams: trapped in either East or South Asia, hoping to do something more creative with our lives but often shut down for not being realistic. When we see others making it, it gives us courage and an opportunity to show our parents that a creative future is possible.
The year is now 2018, and Imaunel has came out with his debut project, Amen. In short order, he became the first Asian to ever top the iTunes hip-hop charts. The project was 44 minutes and 3 seconds long, and upon its release I couldn’t focus on anything other than his music.
"Amen": Didn’t have no friends, talk to myself we always get along, I’m still learnin', I'm still fuckin' up, correct me if I'm wrong.
This line from the title track stuck out to me. Long periods of solitude can often cause a person to become ignorant, due to the lack of exposure and communications they have with others. Imanuel is portraying himself as he is: learning, trying, and open to criticism. (A timely example: his recent name change, from Rich Chigga to Rich Brian.) This title track can be seen as symbolic of starting fresh and providing the public a glimpse of who he is as Rich Brian.
"Cold": And I always care 'bout everybody but myself, that’s the life of a Virgo, never gettin' mad.
The simplicity of the lyric video that Rich Brian's record label 88rising released struck me. "Cold" explores the many emotions within the young Imanuel: although he is thriving in his music career, he is unable to shake off his relationship blues and worries of solitude. Following the rush of success in his career, these reservations prompt a shift in his mindset, and he is able to become more self-aware of what he does right and wrong in his relationships. This is bolstered by an allusion to the astrology sign, Virgo (People born between August 22 to September 22), which is commonly characterized as a selfless and caring sign. He’s reflecting upon his sentiments and his tendencies to prioritize other people in his life, often forgetting to take care of himself. However, this is something he is okay with.
"Occupied": I don't need to flex or tell the people where I'm at, who I'm with or who I'm seein' later, where I went, all that validation ain't gon' matter in a sec.
"Occupied" serves as a symbol of Imanuel being content with his current level of success. He reflects upon how he has changed since his first days after arriving in Los Angeles to further advance his music career: he no longer feels the need to act cool or to “flex” anymore, nor to even focus on the people with whom he once surrounded himself. His focus on his music career and the positive feedback he feels from his audience are enough, and what others think of him does not matter to him anymore.
"Introvert" (Ft. Joji): Every time I go closer to the road, leavin' my light, I just wanna know why I'm feelin' so lonely at night.
This emotional ballad featuring internet sensation Joji quickly became my favorite track off the album. The song focuses on the ambiguous feelings of not knowing what other people’s intentions are towards you. Especially with the level of success both Joji and Brian have accumulated, it is difficult for them to distinguish whether people are genuine with them or simply using them. The solution they have both chosen is to isolate themselves away from others, bottling up these emotions. The lyric “I just wanna know why I'm feelin' so lonely at night” establishes the imagery of silence: as the two singers are alone at night, when it’s the quietest, coldest, and emptiest, they are left alone with their thoughts.
"Glow Like Dat": Didn't wanna hurt my feelings but I couldn't get a clue.
This was released as a single prior to the announcement of the Amen project, and it was the first song Imanuel had written about romance. This is a break-up song, and it expertly captures that bittersweet feeling of loving and caring for someone, only for them not to reciprocate the same level of feelings. Even after the break-up, Imanuel can't help but look back on his past with his ex and the way he felt about her.
"Trespass": Actin' like a hooligan, I swear I think I'm f**kin’ losin' friends, Somebody called me up and told me I'ma meet the president, I said okay then I proceed to leave my friends.
"Trespass" represents how Imanuel has been pushing people in his life away as he is progressing in his career. However, this isn’t because he has become egotistical but rather because he is unable to distinguish who his real friends are, because the materialistic things he now has access to often act as a barrier to genuine interaction. The common theme of feeling lonely reoccurs again and again in the album, causing listeners to feel this vague sinking feeling inside their heart. The song’s laid-back feel reeks with Imanuel’s frustration.
"Arizona" (Ft. AUGUST 08): Been a minute since I heard a lyric, that can move somebody and their feelings.
The project ends with "Arizona", a track that says goodbye to childhood and reflects on moving onto adulthood. By placing this song at the end of the project, 18-year-old Imanuel uses it to pinpoint a spot on his growth in his journey.
Furthermore, "Arizona" ends with a recorded conversation between Imanuel and his manager about a made-up episode of "The Office" in which Michael Scott isn’t able to handle his depression. This reference draws an allusion to how rappers, like comedians, put out a happy and glamorous exterior to mask the darkness they feel inside of them.
All in all, Rich Brian’s Amen is a success, especially taken into account that this is his first project. The collaborations are done in such a tasteful manner that both artists are able to keep their distinctive musical voices without compromising, yet everything goes together so smoothly. Imanuel also touches on feelings of being lonely despite his commercial success: instead of just simply focusing on typical rapper’s luxurious lifestyle, he speaks commonly about feelings of solitude and heartbreak and the influences of the public’s opinions.
It is difficult for Asians to break into the American music scene. Imanuel’s success in the hip-hop music scene should be celebrated, and we should continue to influence the ones around us to pursue their goals and dreams, regardless of their race. Because your race shouldn’t ever be a barrier.
Ting Ting Chen