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The only way is up: a review of 88rising's group album "Head In The Clouds"

Aug. 6, 2018
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It’s no secret that the American music scene severely lacks racial diversity. Most of today’s popular artists conform to the black-and-white guidelines of English-speaking songs, leaving little leeway for any other languages to come to the forefront. Even the popular 2017 summer jam “Despacito” needed a feature from Justin Bieber, a Canadian artist, to really bring it mainstream success. 

Asian-identifying artists have faced major adversity within the music industry. Many Asians growing up in America didn’t see anyone in the mainstream media with whom they could identify.  The Splinter article “America is in Love With Asian Music, but Asian American Artists Still Can't Catch a Break” brings up the point that although many current mainstream artists do have Asian heritage, they are usually ethnically ambiguous or not particularly outspoken about being Asian, leaving most of the general public in the dark. For example, Tyga, Vanessa Hudgens, and Hailee Steinfeld are all Asian—however, they do not have glaringly obvious Asian physical attributes or Asian-sounding names; more importantly, they rarely acknowledge this aspect of their heritage.

Asians around the world love music, but we also want to hear music from people who have stories, experiences, or even just a face with which we can identify.

88rising is a media production company founded by Sean Miyashiro which initially strove to promote Asian and Asian-American artists. Since its establishment in 2015, however, the company has expanded to include African-American artist AUGUST 08. 88rising represents widely diverse artists, many of whom have found commercial success in America that exceeds the level of fame they could’ve reached in their respective home countries.

The 88rising compilation album Head in the Clouds features prominent 88rising artists such as Rich Brian, Higher Brothers, Joji, and NIKI, and also newcomers AUGUST 08 and Keith Ape. The album itself consists of 17 tracks, ranging from rap to R&B to soul. 

As its title suggests, Head in the Clouds delivers a dreamy, fun, and at times mellow sound reminiscent of its artists’ other music. Rich Brian’s solo track, “History,” for instance, features a beat similar to that of his hit “Glow Like Dat.” The song allows his slow-paced flow to shine while showcasing some vocals demonstrative of Rich Brian’s evolution as an artist.

On Brian’s other featured track, “Disrespectin,” a fast-paced banger, he flaunts his more brazen side: “Tell your man, he don't get my respect / Throw the man five bands, and he'd never collect.”

A highlight from the album is “Let It Go,” which features XXL freshman Blocboy JB. The track’s catchy, clean production—featuring a constant cowbell and thumping bassline—puts the Higher Brothers in a completely different musical environment, yet their trademark Chinese-English flow works, and they come through with funny and silly lines like “撥通911控訴我有多fire” (complained to 911 because I had too much fire) and “Girl, you got me frozen, I’m gon’ just let it go.”

The album’s other features are hit or miss. Goldlink brings a nice verse to “Nothing Wrong,” and Famous Dex’s hook on “Japan 88” works well. On the other hand, 03 Greedo’s verse on “Swimming Pool” is incoherent and uninspired, adding almost nothing to the song. 

By far the biggest surprises on this album are DZknow’s vocal contributions and the Higher Brothers’ versatility. In the rest of the group’s discography, the vocals have been mediocre to subpar, with weak flows and uninspired melodies functioning as hooks. On “Nothing Wrong,” however, the Higher Brothers mix it up with a fast beat and a stunningly beautiful hook from DZknow. DZ also provides supporting vocals on “Midsummer Madness,” his falsetto blending well with Joji’s soft tones to set the song’s mellow mood. On “Swimming Pool,” DZ takes a different approach, singing at the very top of his chest voice to create a timbre similar to contemporaries like Trippie Redd and even Lil Uzi Vert. The guitars in “Lover Boy 88” accommodate Phum Viphurit’s vocals, and Masiwei delivers a surprisingly smooth verse about an imaginary lover. The song concludes with DZ singing about an unrequited love, not unlike Bearface’s concluding track on BROCKHAMPTON’s SATURATION II. 

Niki’s “Warpaint” is similar to her previous tracks, highlighting her vocal range and demonstrating her lyrical talent. Her soothing vocals portray a heartbroken individual painfully trying to live each day like a soldier in wartime. Heartbreak is a strong recurring theme in Niki’s music, as shown in her past singles and her breakout EP, Zephyr.

Head in the Clouds is not simply a talent showcase for the record label, but rather a signal to the music industry that one’s talent is not and should not be bound by the restrictions of race, language, or nationality.

Like I mentioned in a previous album review, it’s difficult for Asians to break into the American music scene; their success in the hip-hop music scene should be celebrated, and we should continue to push the ones around us to pursue their goals and dreams regardless of race. 

This album gives the public and the industry a small taste of what they can expect from the label and its artists themselves: barriers will be broken.