Brian Imanuel was a 16-year-old comedy Viner in a pink polo and a fanny pack when the video for his breakthrough single “Dat $tick” went viral in 2016. He was growing up in Indonesia, learning English from YouTube videos and hip-hop from Macklemore and eventually Drake and 2 Chainz, according to his recent interview with GQ.
Released under the moniker “Rich Chigga,” the “Dat $tick” video features Imanuel pouring out bottles of liquor and casually using the N-word, comfortable enough saying it to even derive his stage name from a portmanteau of it and “Chinese” used as a slur to describe “Black-acting” Asian people. The song is a non-Black teenager attempting to embrace hip-hop culture while in actuality making a mockery of it, rapping about killing cops while wearing khaki shorts and hitting the dab.
That said, though it’s so problematic in nature, “Dat $tick” is rooted enough in internet absurdism that its over-the-top, F-bomb laden hook hits humor cues to come off as sort of perversely clever — like an early stage version of 12-year-old Matt Ox rapping with fidget spinners in hand. But more so, the song showcased Imanuel’s unique voice and technical affinity for rapping, yet with so much stacked against him, a lot at his own doing, his breakthrough also served as a setback to recover from.
To start off 2018, Imanuel decided to drop the controversial “Rich Chigga” handle in favor of “Rich Brian,” posting on Twitter, “I was naïve & I made a mistake” when choosing his original name. Perhaps it was feigned ignorance, or he felt the name served its purpose in gaining him popularity, but there is something to be said about an 18-year-old listening to criticisms of him and adjusting accordingly in the midst of call-out culture, willing to perpetuate the nuanced conversation about being a non-Black person in hip-hop.
But it wasn’t just the name Imanuel was dropping — he was done being a comedy rapper altogether, instead deciding to learn to produce his own music and take hip-hop seriously on his debut record “Amen.” And while the album does prove that he’s taken strides as a multifaceted musician, his attempt at a squeaky clean slate seems to have washed away some of what made him a novel voice in the first place.
On the Offset-assisted “Attention,” Imanuel retreats to easy, cliché similes, like “Fuck your Snapchat, fuck your camera / I need space like astronaut” and “My sneakers match my sweater, I got hella sauce like soy,” using these lyrical tropes as if trying to prove he actually understands rap now, even though his previous work is much more compelling.
It’s a phenomenon much like what Miley Cyrus experienced on her last album cycle for “Younger Now,” trying to shake the cringe-inducing, twerk-heavy “Bangerz” era, but losing a little too much glitter in the process. The difference is, this is Rich Brian’s first record as opposed to Cyrus’s sixth, and though he has a lot of time in his still-burgeoning career to re-adjust, controversy is already so entwined in his come-up.
On the record’s most difficult track, “Kitty,” Imanuel tries to prove he hasn’t completely lost his comedic flair, but his storytelling is clunky, failing to capitalize on the song’s twist ending, and the one-liners are more uncomfortable than memorable. “Getting pretty wet, sweat running down her neck / And the kitty so cute, I wanna keep it as a pet,” he rhymes in a particularly rough section of the song, where the sexual lyrics are neither funny or clever enough to offset the embarrassment they cause.
That’s not to say “Amen” is all for naught — Imanuel’s efforts as a producer are impressive and often genuinely beautiful. “Introvert” is a dreamy, intimate ode to loneliness, “Chaos” is a dizzying trap banger and the xylophone-driven “Occupied” is pleasantly weird and promising for what affectations Imanuel will continue to explore as a producer. Standout “See Me” is musically adjacent to the late Lil Peep, combining a somber, emo aesthetic with trap beats and showing off Imanuel’s strong ear for melody.
“Amen” also shows flashes of Rich Brian finding a happy medium between what originally brought him attention and where he wants to go artistically in the future. The record’s best song, “Glow Like Dat,” which was dropped in August 2017, reminisces on a past relationship against another gorgeous instrumental, and also contains a lyric like “I be on my Mad Demarco shit / Break my heart then smoke a cig / Even put some cloves in it” that still resonates with the internet-core humor he grew up with. “I was just thinking about you / And it made me think of colors of the space / 70 miles up in my coupe / And not a thought about stepping on my breaks” he rap-sings on the same track, like a semi-detached stream of consciousness that still feels oddly moving.
It’s understandable to not be able to make peace with Rich Brian, but meanwhile, “Amen” recently became the first album by an Asian artist to reach No. 1 on the iTunes hip-hop chart and his presence raises important questions about exploitation and appropriation amid race dynamics in the genre. “I’m still learning, I’m still fucking up, correct me if I’m wrong,” he raps on the album’s title track. It’s an earnest sentiment from an 18-year-old, and he has shown legitimate progress in the right direction—but he has a ways to go musically as well before securing his position as a formidable player in hip-hop.
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