Founded in 2015, 88rising has established itself as the premier record label for Asian representation in the Western music landscape. From golden boy Rich Brian to the reinvented Joji to resident songstress NIKI, the label is brimming with talent that fans have fallen in love with.
The first Head in the Clouds was an impressive look at the artists’ chemistry as well, following contemporary trends while also establishing a pop-rap sound of their own. Over the course of 2018, we’ve also seen solo efforts from Rich Brian, NIKI, Lexie Liu, Higher Brothers and August 08; each ranging from decent to great.
All signs were pointing to Head In The Clouds II, the label’s 2nd collaborative album in 2 years, to be another easy win, but the end result couldn’t be further from it.
Ditching the trap and pop influences of its predecessor, HITC II instead chooses to embrace dance and electronic production for the bulk of the project. It’s a mind-boggling aesthetic change given how none of 88rising’s artists even come close to making such music on their solo material.
2nd single “Breathe” sees Joji teaming up with Don Krez to tackle a dance-pop beat while still retaining his drowsy vocal delivery. It’s an unholy matchup that fails to go anywhere as the track fizzles out just after 2 minutes without any form of a climax.
The Rich Brian and Chung Ha-led opener “These Nights” isn’t any better. Drowning Brian’s vocals in auto-tune, he’s barely recognisable as he lazily croons over another by-the-numbers dance-pop beat. The track reeks of a lazy attempt at a Kpop crossover without truly engaging with the eccentricities of the genre.
Much of the record suffers from the same problem. “Need Is Your Love”, “Tequila Sunrise”, “Walking”, “Hold Me Down”, “2 The Face” and “Gold Coast” are all dance-inspired cuts that underwhelm. Everyone sounds out of their element here in a bid to appeal to the ever-burgeoning Asian American EDM community.
The issue with these tracks isn’t that they’re bad. They’re all serviceable and achieve what they set out to do, which is to be fun party music. However, the crime is that they rob the individuality that fans have come to enjoy and expect from 88rising’s artists.
When HITC II isn’t catching up to trends, it’s chasing past successes.
“Strange Land” with NIKI and Phum Viphurit is a collaboration that makes sense, given that “Lover Boy 88” was a massive sleeper hit from the 1st HITC. A guaranteed pairing that would have instantly caught fan attention if the song wasn’t as insipid. It’s a breezy ballad that would have been right at home on NIKI’s EP earlier this year, but sticks out like a sore thumb here.
Also, “I Love You 3000 II” is reminiscent of the ’88’ twists on existing songs that the label did on HITC. A cute duet between Stephanie Poetri and Kpop star Jackson Wang, the song is inoffensive but also fails to justify why it needed to get the 88rising treatment since there’s barely any difference from the original.
Then there are “Just Used Music Again” and “Hopscotch”. The less said about these tracks the better.
There’s one bright spot on the album, however, and that’s NIKI.
Her contributions are easily the best songs here. Lead single “Indigo”, “Shouldn’t Couldn’t Wouldn’t” and “La La Lost You” are all amazing R&B tracks that provide a respite from the uninspired dance tunes. Like a true pop star, she confidently struts her way across the tracklist, obliterating anything else that comes before and after it.
There’s passion and confidence in her delivery and, honestly, NIKI sounds like the only artist on HITC II that isn’t phoning it in. If anything, this album serves as the perfect appetiser for whatever the Indonesian-based singer has in store.
Unlike its predecessor, where the record sounded like an actual collaborative album for everyone on the label to let loose and make great music together, HITC II reeks of label intervention in order to craft a project that can appeal to the widest audience possible.
Unfortunately, 88rising loses sight of what made them so musically unique in the first place as they do so.