Review: Rich Brian takes 10 steps forward and 1 step back on ‘The Sailor’

The music industry in 2019 just loves an artist that can capitalise of their viral fame and turning it into a legitimate success – just look at Lil Nas X.

Rich Brian has seen similar success (albeit on a much smaller scale) with his 2018 debut – Amen, which was an admirable effort at cementing his position within the crowded genre of trap rap. At the same time, he became one of the pioneers for Asian representation in hip-hop, proving that a kid from Indonesia can still rub shoulders with the American big boys.

However, that album failed to capture the essence of the man behind Rich Brian. Amen was Brian embracing modern trap stylings that never really dug past the surface of his character. Resulting in a record that felt more like he was playing catch up with his contemporaries in terms of sound and style, rather than establishing himself as an artist with his own unique perspective.

Yet on The Sailor, he does exactly that and so much more.

At its initial release, lead single “Yellow” felt like a declaration, that Rich Brian isn’t just the kid with the funny raps anymore but an artist that had something to say. The track opens up with Brian’s high pitched crooning with was barely recognisable as his own label had to step in and clarify that it was actually him on the track. Pairing this newfound sound with Brian’s added insecurities as an Indonesian rapper that’s carving a path out in America on his own, which makes the song that much more endearing.

Still, the clear standout of “Yellow” along with the rest of The Sailor is the exquisite production, which was handled largely by Bekon and the Donuts. The entire record is warm and rich with detail, its string sections and orchestral structure feeling reminiscent to Late Registration-era Kanye.

There’s an added layer of depth to his new material despite his lyrical shortcomings. Given that his proficiency in English is limited to self-taught lessons on the internet, he can’t be faulted for having clunky bars here and there. Still, Brian attempts to maintain his sense of humour across the record to mixed results.

Lacing the album with themes of isolation and maturation, The Sailor sees Brian revealing his insecurities and doubts while hoping to inspire fans across the world to be proud of their heritage. Yet, the ill-placed humour tends to detract listeners from his overall message most of the time. Lines like “Sucked on her nipple like bonappa-tit” provide such a tonal whiplash that it’s hard not to be distracted by them.

There are moments on this album where he reverts back to the monotone flow that he had on Amen, which serves to be his Achilles heel. The way he delivers his bars with that flow just isn’t very exciting and often the verses’ content just ends up being lost in its tediousness, especially in contrast to the fresh energy found on tracks like “Rapapapa” and “100 Degrees”.

Still, this is an improvement on all fronts.  Where Amen showcased the talent bubbling underneath his humourous exterior, The Sailor proved that he also has the vision to back it up.

Final Verdict

The Sailor is one of the most impressive offerings of 2019, especially considering how much of a tonal detour it took from Amen. Even with minor missteps here and there, Rich Brian proves that he’s one of the most exciting new voices in rap music today.

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Based in Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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