It may initially seem unfair to compare Rich Brian to Migos, they’re rap’s superstar trio whose ad-libs and triplet flows have been definitive to hip hop, while he has a handful of viral hits that are often overshadowed by his problematic beginnings. Yet as early two of early 2018’s notable hip hop releases they reveal two entirely different ways to craft an album. Migo’s Culture II is a bloated 24 track slog that rarely visits a new idea, instead it solely exists to game the streaming services to ensure impressive numbers – a tactic that, of course, worked. Whereas, Rich Brian’s debut, Amen, refuses bow to trends and solely exist as an artistic statement, and that make it one of the most refreshing rap release in some time.
Rich Brian, aka Brian Imanuel, career beginnings was as an internet comedian, whose most noteworthy moment was, perhaps, microwaving bread. His debut single under the Rich Chigga moniker, ‘Dat $tick’ felt entirely like an extension of that comedy. It hit a number of the perceived rap tropes, from its aggressively violent and sexual lyrical boastings, the awkward wielding of guns and overblown trap sound, yet was counterpointed by a fanny pack and his baby face.
Amen is a testament to how far he has come since then, he’s transitioned from ‘meme rapper’ into a commanding artist that has a true grasp of his entire craft, in a similar approach to Tyler, The Creator and Childish Gambino on their latest efforts, but at a much quicker pace befitting of an internet raised artist (‘Dat $tick’ is barely two years old). Amen is almost entirely self-produced, its consistently dark, raw and skeletal, it’s fascinating to hear an artist craft his own musical world to assist his personal musing and gruff vocals, something that is often avoided with the genre. Amen visual rollout has also been an exceptional, a brief video for the title track centres on Brian rapping in a dark room, and it’s a gripping visual that complements the moody, desolate track, while his performance on The Late Late Show demonstrates his evolving understanding of set design.
An essential part of this evolution has been to shed the cultural insensitivity that plagued his career beginnings, the name Rich Chigga obviously being a problematic play on a word that does not belong to an Asian artist, use of said word was also a part of ‘Dat $tick’s ugly cultural appropriation. His rebrand as Rich Brian is a step towards leaving that behind and his admittance that it’s definitely not his place to use that word shows that he’s absorbed this criticism since he’s blown up and that’s lead to a conscious change. Amen avoids stealing from hip hop altogether, it has hues of trap in its bassy rumbles, but the colourful melodic sound is unique the Brian – on ‘Cold’ he openly admits this culture isn’t his to use with the lyric “Never usin’ triplet flows because I’m not a Migo.” In fact, his music being free from traditional trap means Offset struggles to fit his usual flow into his appearance on ‘Attention’, having to switch up into a mostly subdued deep vocal.
What makes Amen most exciting is that it actually remembers what an album is supposed to be. Not a loosely related collection of songs made to rack up a play count, but a record that effortlessly flows together into a cohesive sound. At a clean 45 minutes, most tracks say everything they need to say in under 3 minutes, there’s no bloat and every track fits in. While criticisms have been levelled at Brian for the production being very “one note”, there’s enough variety in moods to remain intriguing throughout it’s runtime. The fact that ‘Glow Like Dat’s heartbroken, shimmering guitar arpeggios can sit comfortably next to bass roars and unwieldly synths of ‘Trespass’ proves that Brian has an exciting future as a producer, hopefully this extends to other artist who could use more personality in their production.
The album is clearly capturing the imagination of music fans too, as Brian was crowned the first Asian artist to top the iTunes hip hop chart. His fluency in English may give him an advantage over his 88rising peers in achieving this milestone, but all the support he’s built up over this release cycle is clearly the biggest factor in this achievement, as Brian continues to prove himself as an artist. He’s proved that he created a gap for himself in America’s crowded rap scene, so here’s hoping other artist takes note of Rich Brian’s success, cause 2018 really needs more albums like Amen.