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88rising’s ‘Head In The Clouds’ Highlights Their Globalist Approach To Hip-Hop

The media group’s summer crew album represents the power of youth and multiculturalism.

Founded by and for millennial Asians with a global outlook, 88rising’s East-West approach to music and media has resonated with fans worldwide. In a few short years, the media group has yielded several successful tours, international collaborations, and a space in the music scene for what has been dubbed a new kind of “hip-hop globalism.” Their one-day festival of the same name arrived last week, and ahead of it they released their first crew album, Head In The Clouds, in late July. It’s a celebratory snapshot of their ascent to fame and success in a media landscape lacking in voices with Asian heritage.

Head In The Clouds is 17 tracks long and boasts a roster of 19 artists representing eight countries. Just under half of the featured artists hail from the east: Thailand (Phum Viphurit), China (Higher Brothers), South Korea (Keith Ape), Japan (Verbal, joji), and Indonesia (Rich Brian, NIKI) are all represented. Similarly, the featured American artists also cross genres and styles. There’s the soulful musings of Los Angeles-born AUGUST 08, the trap sounds of the Atlanta-bred Playboi Carti, and the playful, larger-than-life persona of Florida’s Don Krez and Chicago’s Famous Dex. Between those artists, all corners of the US are covered.

Most of the album consists of collaborations across linguistic and cultural divides. Songs like “Let It Go” find members of China’s Higher Brothers effortlessly flipping between Sichuanese-Mandarin and English, while Memphis-based BlocBoy JB raps alongside them.

Melo plays up his Chinese background along with his ability to steal girls on “Let It Go”:

我曾經 stay in the dark and I’m searching for help
I change VIP into VVIP
她會離開你, speaking Chinese and be riding my dick

88rising’s international approach to music is what sets the project apart from other labels and collectives, proving that hip-hop has transcended barriers of language, race, and culture. Head In The Clouds features a wide variety of Asian and mixed heritage artists. Arguably it represents one of hip-hop’s first genuinely Gen Z international albums: almost every featured artist was born in the late ‘90s, and used momentum from social media and internet viral fame to launch their music careers.

For example, 22-year-old singer-songwriter Phum Virphurit got his start uploading covers to his YouTube channel. Virphurit is of Thai background, but spent many years in New Zealand and has been hailed as the face of “neo soul” in Asia.

On their remix of Viphurit’s viral hit “Lover Boy,” Higher Brothers shout out the many nationalities in their crew, highlighting their unity through the love of music and hip-hop:

Chengdu in the house
南京也 in the house
LA in the house
And the Boston in the house
上海 in the house
台湾 香港 in the house
We got Thailand in the house
And London in the house

This multicultural aspect of Head In The Clouds also shows up with artists like joji (real name George Miller). Joji was born in Japan in a mixed Japanese-Australian family, before relocating to New York in 2017 to launch his career as a producer and singer-songwriter (he capitalized on a long-established internet meme career as YouTube “shock vlog” characters Filthy Frank and Pink Guy).

The title track of the album, “Head In The Clouds,” is a joji solo outing where he reveals surprisingly nuanced musical potential—that is, compared to the aggressive “surreal comedy hip-hop” of his past.

Head in the clouds
And I’m not coming down
I used to swim now I’m ready to sink
I wanna give you what I can not do
Oh, oh, oh, oh

Meanwhile, joji’s latest single “Slow Dancing In The Dark” is receiving some high profile radio support too.

Other artists also represent several cultural backgrounds at once, including Verbal, a 42-year-old third generation Japanese-Korean, and Harikiri, a UK-born, China-based producer.

The album isn’t just diverse it’s also optimistic. The hope for a brighter future is best shown in the music video for “Midsummer Madness,” which features nostalgic clips from their world tours:

It’s clear that 88rising is aiming high. The title of the album “head in the clouds” itself suggests lofty and dreamy ambitions. The hook of “Midsummer Madness” also hints at their whirlwind success as Asian misfits who defied expectations:

Midsummer madness
I can’t take it no more, no more
Fuck the ru-u-u-ules

However, some have criticized the group as another instance of cultural appropriation where Asian artists are using black hip-hop culture for their own success. Questions of race and representation are inherent to 88rising’s mission, something Rich Brian grappled with in detail on his debut album. Despite these concerns, 88rising seem focused on demonstrating the power of hip-hop as the defining voice of today’s youth all over the world. The rebellion, energy, and democratic spirit of hip-hop has found its way east and is now feeding back to the west in unexpected ways.

Though it flew under the radar, Head In The Clouds was a moment that captured how wide hip-hop’s multicultural umbrella had gotten. It wasn’t just a slick summer jam, but a victory lap for 88rising that brings together a fun-loving, ambitious crew from all over the world.