Review: Rich Brian Loses His Way On “1999”

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Prior to the release of 1999, Rich Brian dropped the catchy summer jam “Bali” as a standalone promotional single. The single art features a multi-coloured chameleon; an animal that I think accurately sums up Brian’s career thus far. An artist that’s capable of adapting to the many influences around him, but struggles to find a ‘colour’ of his own.

Over its 7 tracks, the Indonesian rapper once again proves his versatility after his thematic shift from the trap-heavy Amen to the illustriously orchestrated The Sailor. Continuing his artistic transformation from Sailor – like his pitched up vocals and proneness to singing, 1999 delves hard into the pop genre, to the point where it begins sounding eerily similar to the excessively sanitised and overall not-very-good Head In The Clouds II.

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The EP kicks off with “Sometimes”, a pretty heartfelt reflection on distancing himself from his imposter syndrome ever since his career took off. It’s a great thematic intro as he sounds more comfortable than ever in both his rapping and singing. However, in a project that seems to be about experimenting with a new sound, it’s disappointing how much “Sometimes” sounds like a circa-2012 pop rap track – think B.o.B or Travie McCoy, with its bright synth keys and tried-and-true song structure. It’s not an outright bad song, but I did hope for Brian to continue along current contemporary trends instead of retreading expired tropes.

Speaking of similar sounding tracks, “Long Run” feels too much like a rip-off of Drake. Everything from the pop-trap production to Brian’s sing-rap flow just reeks of a standard Drake song that would have debuted on top the Hot 100 in a slow week. The only thing missing from “Long Run” is a catchy chorus, which serves as its biggest detriment and just makes the song sound shoddily derivative.

There are other instances of chart-seeking pop rap on 1999 too, like the EP’s 2nd single – “Don’t Care”. The song suffers from a weak sung chorus as well, a problem that Brian barely had on his past albums. Now, rappers that can’t sing yet still do on their records isn’t a revolutionary concept, but what separates the good from the bad within this niche sound is how much they’re compensated by the song’s production. “Don’t Care” would have sounded great in the hands of a Lil Durk or Calboy, with its squeaky clean instrumental that would have worked better with a more well-sung chorus/hook.

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“Drive Safe” off The Sailor is a prime example of a great Rich Brian ballad, as the luscious instrumental crescendos in tandem with his crooning, balancing out the weaker aspects of his vocals. “When You Come Home” is another stab at a ballad but this time around the results are much, much weaker. The sombre piano-driven tune is a great backdrop as Brian touches on his departure from Indonesia and how much he misses his parents. It features some of the best songwriting in his career, but once again his singing makes the track a drag to listen to, despite how emotional his performance feels.

Fortunately, the EP sees an upswing once we get to “DOA” – an upbeat disco-pop jam that drenches Brian’s vocals in autotune. It’s a great showcase of his pop sensibilities and makes me wish that Rich Brian would inject more energy into his work like he used to on Amen or “100 Degrees“. The introspection of his recent material is effective as proof that he’s more than just a 1-dimensional character, but it’s always come at a sacrifice of what he does best – bangers packed with energy and charisma; which makes both “DOA” and lead single “Love In My Pocket” the best songs on the project by a mile.

The final track “Sins” is just…there. There’s nothing noteworthy about it – Brian rapping is decent, his singing is tolerable and the production is pretty much run-of-the-mill pop rap. It honestly just sounds like filler.

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Final Verdict

88rising has steadily been transitioning into a pop label given the recent string of releases from artists like Joji and their own compilation tape, and if 1999 is any indication, Rich Brian seems to following that same path. However, Brian is, and always will be, a better rapper than singer. Despite the commercial success of his autotuned summer jams, his charisma as a rapper will always be his defining strength and I’d hate to see it get sidelined in favour of chasing after chart domination.

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

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