How seriously should we take Brian Imanuel? Home-schooled in Indonesia, the precocious teen came to rap through the warped lens of the internet – learning both the English language and his sense of humour from music videos, esoteric memes and obscure vloggers. By his own admission, that gave him a distorted sense of cultural norms. It was this diet that produced his 2016 hit ‘Dat $tick,’ a song with lyrics and visuals that inverted expectations of who a trap rapper might be.
But that dislocation also made his satire clumsy. While he was poking fun at himself, the 16-year-old’s use of racial epithets (most obviously, by calling himself Rich Chigga) – however ironically – struck many as careless. So, on New Year’s Day 2018, Brian woke up, and re-styled himself Rich Brian – explicitly making a break with his past, recognising his mistakes, and asking both his fans, and those who might have been put off by the crassness of his previous work, to tune back in with fresh ears for debut album ‘Amen’.
Well, there is a seriousness accompanying the humour here. There is a frankness and intelligence to some of the (mostly autobiographical) lyrics. In more introspective moments we catch Imanuel pondering the speed of his ascent to stardom, the loneliness of life on the road and, on ‘Kitty’, detailing a sexual experience gone horribly awry.
And in light of his youthful indiscretions, his exploration of the emotional burden of living with racial stereotypes (albeit, of Asian teenagers) on opener ‘Amen’ demonstrates maturity. In fact, Imanuel is playing no small part in challenging those preconceptions now, recently becoming the first Asian artist to hit the top spot on the iTunes hip-hop chart.
At times, such as on ‘See Me’ the album slips into a workmanlike mode. Almost entirely self-produced, there are tracks which show competency, but not much more. An avid student of rap, Imanuel is able to easily reproduce the most obvious tropes of modern hip-hop to create listenable, but largely unsubstantial, tracks. These disappoint all the more given the ear he shows for eerier, less conventional sonics on ‘Tresspass’.
The overriding, inescapable, and most important aspect of ‘Amen,’ though, is that it is fun. Fun to listen to, fun (it seems) to have made and no doubt fun to perform. Because for all his growth, Imanuel has not lost the youthful, slightly cocky irreverence that got him where he is. This shines through in the pleasing melodies and deliberately schoolyard insults of ‘Enemies’, and it in this instances where he is at his best. So no, we shouldn’t take him too seriously, and we should enjoy his music all the more for it.
Words: Alex McFadyen
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