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How rap, R&B, and lo-fi artists are crossing the east-west divide

Exposure to Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese artists is enriching North American music
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For many western listeners, exposure to East Asia’s complex modern music culture has come through Korean pop, and Korean pop alone. It’s no wonder why — the genre’s catchy tunes, clothing, and intricate choreography come together to form the complete entertainment package.

However, this is an association that will soon start to change. Last year saw a rise in rap groups and R&B artists across many Asian countries’ music scenes.

Such growth can only be excellent news for music fans, regardless of nationality. Eastern reinterpretations of traditionally western genres, such as R&B and rap, with their roots in African-American culture, are vital to music, emphasizing the best aspects of both traditions.

The bloating of R&B has become a plague in recent years, with flat, stunted projects like Drake’s Views and XXXTentacion’s 17 trying to manufacture the emotional resonance that great R&B artists establish with their listeners.

However, fresh perspective from Asia has arrived to help reverse that trend. Artists like the half-Japanese Joji, with his debut EP In Tongues, have provided a welcome antidote, eschewing vague, commercial lyrics in favour of lines with tangible impact.

It’s Joji’s focus on tactile songwriting that has become arguably his greatest strength. “Will He,” a bitter love letter from an ex-boyfriend, asks a former lover, “Will your tongue still remember the taste of my lips,” and, “Will your shadow remember the swing of my hips?”

The songs aren’t very long, and repetition is frequent, but — reminiscent of some tracks from Frank Ocean’s Blonde — they prey on your senses, using your sense of taste, smell, sight, and touch to pull you into stunning places.

Joji builds a visceral connection with his listeners that has mostly been lost with artists in the modern day. Hopefully more artists will build on projects like these, which focus on the elements of R&B that make it stand as its own art form, and hopefully they cross over to western audiences.

Joji’s instrumentals reveal evidence of a notable trend. Rarely featuring more than a piano, a guitar, some trap-style hi-hats, and a simple bassline, they mirror his songwriting in their simplicity and surreal melancholic vibe.

Compared to the synth-heavy R&B that has gained popularity in recent years — think of The Weeknd’s Starboy or 6LACK’s Free 6LACK — Joji’s tracks are startlingly unique. Here, though, Joji is only building upon another genre of music in which East Asian influence has been key — lo-fi hip hop.

Historically, lo-fi rap was characterized only by its low-fidelity recording quality, hence the name. Modern lo-fi has taken on some additional hallmarks — tracks are superbly relaxing, and their dreaminess is nearly unparalleled in other musical genres.

Saib, a popular Moroccan artist, samples Japanese vocalists on tracks like “in your arms.” and draws inspiration from Asian locales in songs like “Shinjuku Metro Line,” named after Tokyo’s busiest train station.

Matatabi, an up-and-coming Japanese producer, makes great use of a sample on his song “Walking in the Moonlight,” while Brazilian artist Digital Waves brings back the infectious funk of ’80s pop artists such as Tatsuro Yamashita on tracks like “Talkin.’”

Iconic western songs in the field of hip hop, like “Who Shot Ya” by The Notorious B.I.G, have always been defined by an ability to enrapture the listener with simple beats that set a unique mood. Lo-fi artists, breathing life back into forgotten eastern songs, are one such example.

Perhaps the most surprising musical development of 2017 was the continued growth of quality rap from musicians like South Korean rapper Keith Ape and Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers. Dressed almost exclusively in brands like the Bathing Ape, their aesthetics bear a striking resemblance to American groups like Migos. They draw on trap beats that any Atlanta- or Florida-based rapper would be happy to work with, and they even carry western vocal techniques across linguistic barriers. In the absence of English, anglophone listeners pick up on the importance of vocal delivery by listening to these artists. In English tracks, listeners might be swept along by a particular line or verse, not understanding the finer vocal details that separate it from mediocrity.

By contrast, Keith Ape, stepping on the track “Achoo” with Ski Mask the Slump God, delivers a performance in Korean that makes you want to bob your head from start to finish. Even without any knowledge of his songwriting ability, it’s easy to pinpoint his strength in pacing — as with his 2015 hit single “It G Ma.” Ape constantly manipulates the tempo of his rhymes, slowing down and speeding up with precise timing.

The Higher Brothers also help underscore elements of rap that western consumers enjoy, even if they might not be able to articulate why. Really, it’s because the Higher Brothers have adopted the triplet flow used by American rappers for their use in Mandarin. Dividing each beat into three notes, they’ve ensured that songs like “Flo Rida” and “Young Master” will stay stuck in your head for days.

When the listener can’t get caught up in the lyrics, they’re forced to pay conscious attention to the artist’s sound. Listening to songs like these can force music connoisseurs to think critically about the reasons why they like the music that they do.

Western artists haven’t been oblivious to this development either. Florida natives like Ski Mask the Slump God and XXXTentacion collaborated heavily with Asian artists throughout 2017, while rappers such as Famous Dex and 21 Savage made brief cameos on the scene.

This crossing of the east-west divide is absolutely necessary. The refreshing perspectives regarding songwriting, instrumental focus, and lyrical delivery provided by elements of different East Asian music scenes will add immeasurably to the richness and complexity of the global music industry as a whole.