Brian Imanuel claims he never meant to offend anyone. Sure, ok, he’s foreign, he’s a teenager, but one has to wonder what the hell else he thought would happen when he started posting music videos under the name Rich Chigga in 2015. Deliberately provocative or not, offend he did when he blew up a year later with the viral banger “Dat $tick”. Rappers like Ghostface Killah and Desiigner approved—GFK actually contributed a verse to the remix—but the internet backlash was loud enough to make the neophyte emcee regret his choice of moniker.
So now Imanuel, as old as the millennium is young and newly an adult in the eyes of the law, is attempting to make significant strides forward in his career by way of a tactical retreat. He rang in 2018 by announcing he will from now on be doing business as Rich Brian. Hm. As new-year-new-me identities go, it’s not evocative of much of anything, other than a halfhearted attempt to move on from the past without anything particularly clever to take its place in the present.
But the name is far less important than the new music that comes with it, of course. Rich Brian’s debut LP Amen shoves the rapper into the spotlight, and for the most part he manages to stand on his own two feet. In fact out of 14 tracks, all of five feature another writer, producer, or rapper. Willingly eschewing almost any support represents something of a gamble, but Amen dares the listener to take its artist as he is, rather than as a superficially amusing novelty act. On offer is a solid if unspectacular album supported by the remarkably minimalist architecture of its hard beats, not to mention Brian’s signature baritone flow.
The opener and title track acts as a mission statement in this regard. The beat is as austere as it gets, leaving Brian’s rat-a-tat rapping practically unaccompanied. “I do this shit for the people that look like me,” he declares, so others will see them as more than “that kid that throw that fit ‘cause he didn’t get straight A’s all week.” While notably challenging Asian stereotypes, more importantly a line like that wouldn’t be possible without a real confidence in his belonging in the hip hop community. Later on he proclaims himself the “Indonesian MC Hammer,” which is an odd choice of comparator but stridently boastful nonetheless.
Plenty of insecurity lies beneath that confidence, though, which is natural for a teen suddenly thrust into fame and all its attendant rewards and pitfalls. Much of the album’s lyrical content focuses on the thrill, loneliness, and confusion of an adulthood come too soon: “Skippin’ through some years but it feel alright,” he half-sings on album highlight “See Me”. It’s a poignant reflection played over a thoughtful 16-bit keyboard beat. Other songs miss the mark in his attempts to reveal a newfound introspectiveness. “Flight”, for example, is less personal essay and more book report, in which he really has nothing interesting to say about his first trip across the Pacific, while in the background guitars distractingly stutter in reverse.
Rich Brian’s songwriting is uneven, to be sure. The lyrical whiplash between the personal material and the more typically humorous, semi-ironic posturing is palpable enough to make the listener wish he’d pick a lane and stay in it. And he habitually slants his rhymes to the point of breaking: when he rhymes “work” with “murdered,” it’s hard to figure whether that shows more balls or simply inattention to detail. The latter seems more likely when he sometimes goes on for several lines with no rhymes whatsoever.
But writing has never been his core strength, and it’s certainly not what his fans are listening for. That would of course be his deep-beyond-his-years voice and undeniably skillful flow. What’s so impressive about Brian’s rapping is how natural it feels, though that may be a poor choice of words given the machine-like monotony in his delivery—almost like a rap version of Josh Homme’s “robot rock” as brought to you by Chali 2na.
While distinctive, his style is not without its debts to the leading lights of hip hop’s newest generation. Occasionally when things speed up he breaks into Migos triplets (more on those here), despite his claims to the contrary. Brian’s versatility is enough though that when one third of Migos actually shows up on “Attention”, he can hold his own and more. Going toe-to-toe with Offset, he spits without blinking, “I got people locked and loaded like they trained for ISIS,” and his ticker tape delivery amplifies the hard-hitting beat.
There is a lot of potential to be found in the minimalist aesthetic of Rich Brian’s production. The electronic drumbeats are mostly right at surface level rather than buried under layers of sonic sediment. He favors more hard kicks and snares than high hats, which is refreshing: the drill beats on “Attention” and “Trespass” are the type to cause involuntary bouncing at the steering wheel. The trap influences are evident of course, both in the high hats that do pop up and in the atmospherics of the backtracks: “Enemies” actually features an oboe. He even exhibits some more radio-friendly chops, such as on the mellifluous “Glow Like Dat”.
While Amen can be an alternately fun and frustrating listening experience for all of the above reasons, everything comes together on the album’s penultimate track, the superior lead single “Chaos”. The beat is every bit as hypnotically spacey as “Dat $tick”, and the lyrics are infused with a wry humor. If Rich Brian is seeking a lyrical balance as a hip hop artist, it is probably to be found here. There’s nothing forced about his dry observations of the moths to fame around him, nor can anyone complain about posturing because in this case the hip hop experience is genuine, and entirely his own.