words by Eric Diep
Rich Brian, the rap wunderkind behind 2016’s viral hit “Dat $tick,” didn’t get a real glimpse of American life until he visited New York last year.
Brian had his first performance in the U.S. at Miami’s Rolling Loud music festival in May and would later embark on his first tour here, making stops in California, Texas and New York. To him, several of those cities felt like being in Indonesia, until he explored New York City — seeing sights like Times Square and the Empire State Building. That genuine connection to New York’s biggest tourist attractions meant this place was special to him.
Naturally, the packed crowd at Terminal 5 for 88rising’s “Double Happiness” concert tour Tuesday night responded to his story in the best way possible: “USA!” chants. Jokingly, Brian started an “Indonesia!” chant, which the crowd immediately joined in. While he was appreciative of the gesture, the fact is, 88rising’s flagship artist is becoming a global phenomenon, leading the way as an artist mashing East and West cultures with his brand of catchy trap songs and pop rap aspirations.
Rich Brian, formerly known as Rich Chigga, rebranded himself with his full name (Brian Imanuel) before the release of his debut album, Amen, in order to write authentically from his experience of gaining newfound fame. He and lo-fi R&B favorite Joji (real name George Miller) have developed serious fanbases since their last musical projects to be taken seriously.
Artists born on the Internet tend to have shaky performances live. However, these two showed how much they want international stardom, appearing more charismatic in their sets and improving the performances of their well-known songs. They aren’t polished acts just yet, but you can tell with every show they’ve gotten better.
For Brian, highlights were a moving rendition of “Glow Like That” in front of a wave of cellphone lights (“I’m about to cry,” he said afterward), “Introvert” with Joji, and a strong finish of an “unknown” song (“Dat $tick”) that had the crowd pleading for one more. For Joji, his set earlier in the night earned respectable head bobs to his somber songs “Will He,” “Window” and “Demons.” Of course, his comedic side shined through when he would occasionally yell “unblock me, bitch!” during his songs, including in the self-depreciating “Bitter F—.”
This tour marks a first for Chengdu’s four-man crew Higher Brothers, consisting of Masiwei, Psy. P, Melo and DZ Know, as they finally take America after establishing themselves in their hometown’s underground hip-hop scene these past few years. Decked out in Supreme, the guys kept the same energy you’ve seen in their videos, opening with “Flo Rida” and “Why Not.” “Take a crazy chance, do a crazy dance,” raps Masiwei, a line that’ll instantly make you do those things with no regrets.
Higher Brothers continued their unrepentant aggression with “Wudidong,” which references a “bottomless hole,” and those who knew the hook screamed “wúdǐdòng” in succession while newer fans followed suit. “New York, I love you,” DZ Know said affectionately. Their joke about having everything “Made in China” has turned into their most relatable anthem for anyone popping foreign tags. Coupled with their set closer “Young Master,” Higher Brothers proved they aren’t carbon copies of Migos and are presently owning their lane as China’s trap innovators.
Out of everyone from the 88rising roster Tuesday night, Keith Ape is the most established crossover act. After the explosion of “It G Ma” (with a remix featuring Waka Flocka Flame, Father, A$AP Ferg and Dumbfoundead) and making an impact in America with a rowdy show at SOBs in 2015, the South Korean rapper’s dark trap has found an audience here. After running through Underwater Squad favorites “Helium” and “Yamanin,” he organized the posse for “It G Ma,” bringing out Higher Brothers, Joji, August 08, Ken Rebel, iLL Chris and just about everyone from backstage to turn up.
Staying true to the “journey to the West” essence, Ape saved his best surprise for last: Ski Mask the Slump God. When he hit the stage, he took off his shoes and jumped right into their powerful trap banger “Achoo.” The stage cleared for Ski Mask to perform “Catch Me Outside,” delivering on the hype with one of 2017’s hottest rap songs.
The moment was a perfect representation of hip-hop’s global effects across the world. Here you have artists from Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea mixing with America’s young talent who have promising futures in hip-hop, transcending language barriers to create new sounds. As the East-West gap gets smaller, the Asian hip-hop movement is well on its way for another takeover in the mainstream.