Learn more about the group here.
Genre: Rap, Trap
Their 2nd full-length offering (3rd if you count their Journey to the West EP) under the 88rising label, Five Stars is an important album for Higher Brothers. Initially gaining recognition in the US through their stellar debut — Black Cab, while riding off the wave of hype from their excellent hit songs “Made in China” and “WeChat”, the stage is set for the group to deliver a product that will strengthen their hold on the Western market.
And they clearly went all out as seen through the features on Five Stars — Ski Mask the Slump God, Denzel Curry, J.I.D, ScHoolboy Q and even Soujia Boy. The label clearly spared no expense to ensure that Western hip-hop fans will take notice of the record. With names like that, it’s hard for anyone who calls themselves a rap fan to not have their curiosity piqued.
Unsurprisingly, most of the features here are by far the best parts of the album, with ScHoolboy Q and J.I.D both providing exceptional efforts. Denzel Curry’s mind-bending contribution on “One Punch Man” in particular though is an absolute highlight. Outshining Ski Mask’s twisting verse while completely overshadowing the Brothers’ eccentric flows, Denzel made sure to bring his A-game. It created a peak early into the record, one that Higher Brothers themselves could barely reach even with the best of their efforts.
This then leads to my biggest gripe with the record, the Higher Brothers themselves. They sorely lack the charisma and infectiousness that made Black Cab such an intriguing listen. Choosing to settle for by-the-numbers trap bangers instead of doubling down and creating their own refreshing takes on American rap. Unnecessarily assimilating themselves into the already saturated sea of fast-paced trap rap.
Although, there are still some standalone highlights by the group such as “Open It Up” and “Gong Xi Fa Cai“; both released prior as lead singles and also two of the best songs on the album. The former features the foursome rhyming over a 90s New York-inspired boom-bap beat that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mobb Deep album. Though it’s nothing revolutionary, each member proves they can more than hold their own over tried-and-true production that made hip-hop such a beloved genre in the first place.
The latter of the two then sees the Brothers flipping the most iconic phrase in Chinese culture into a trap rap hybrid of Western and Chinese cultures. It’s the exact type of music that I hoped for the group to make. One that successfully encompasses western music tropes while refusing to sacrifice the homegrown values that made them unique in the first place.
The production on Five Stars is top notch as well, save for a few duds here and there. With contributions from Don Krez, HARIKIRI, Joji and more, Higher Brothers were given ample resources to rap their hearts out over. And rap they did. There’s no lack of bars on here as each member deliver an endless assault of punchlines over the course the album’s 49 minutes.
Yet other than MaSiWei – who is reliably consistent throughout the whole record, the other members come up to be a bit lacking, especially when it comes to DZKnow. Not to say that any of them are bad, they just lack the commanding presence that MaSiWei brings while many of their verses end up as forgettable. This is even more apparent with DZKnow, who was by far the breakout star of Black Cab.
Melo and Psy.P are serviceable over much of the course of the record, but there’s isn’t much to speak of other than they’re incredible back-and-forth on “Sunshine”. DZ, on the other hand, is known for his eccentricity and distinct vocal delivery, which is barely on here. “Diamond” is the closest to something of a departure from his underwhelming performances as he takes on the role of a hook singer. It’s a nice departure from the aggression that didn’t really fit with his style and flow.
This then leads to my final criticism of the record — a serious lack of well-crafted hooks. Once again going back to Black Cab, that album has an incredible array of hooks that are addicting and punchy, making it an enjoyable listen although being a slightly overlong one. On Five Stars, other than “Open It Up”, “Do It Like Me”, “Gong Xi Fa Cai” and “Diamond”, none of the other hooks stick out. The worst offender of this being the closing track “Zombie”. Besides a painfully stale verse of Rich Brian, MaSiWei’s annoyingly abrasive contribution to the hook does little to save the song from its overblown production.
With a genuine lack of memorability on the album, it serves as a major detriment for the Higher Brothers as it only further drives up the language barriers between them and Western audiences.
Five Stars isn’t a bad album, but ultimately a disappointing one. Instead of improving upon the strongest aspects of their earlier work, the Higher Brothers end up sacrificing too much of what made them unique in favour of existing trends and sounds. The highs are incredibly high, yet the lows are just too painfully mediocre.