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Various Artists - Head in the Clouds Music Album Reviews

For this 88rising showcase, Joji, Rich Brian, AUGUST 08, and the rest of the label all act like promising pop stars but are often overshadowed by the outside talent they bring along.

88rising is half media brand and half label. Their goal is to build a platform for Asian rappers and singers who’ve adopted the sound of contemporary American hip-hop and reinterpreted it through the lens of their own lives, often to massive viral success. While not all of its roster is from abroad—singer AUGUST 08 is from Los Angeles—most of it is made of young artists from China, Indonesia, and Japan who initially took it upon themselves to create videos and songs that blended mischievous humor and chest-thumping braggadocio in the hopes of maybe one day falling into pop stardom. Head in the Clouds is the final push to that dream, pairing 88’s roster with some of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop right now for a collection of trap anthems, poolside bops, and starry-eyed ballads aimed to infiltrate the Top 100. Unfortunately, only a handful of the album’s 17 tracks stand on their own as singular works; the rest are stiff, boilerplate copies of songs by other artists currently racking up streams.

The ones that do succeed sound like they were written purely for top-down twilight rides in the summertime. “Peach Jam,” a collab between oddball YouTube personality turned singer Joji and Memphis’ BlocBoy JB is a pulpy ode to sex built around a recurring “Hey-ya!” chant. It acts as one long bridge, the kind of morsel that inspires VIP sections to jump on couches and collectively sing out of tune. And “History,” a solo cut by the droll MC Rich Brian, is further proof of the Jarkata rapper’s knack for melding his low huff of a voice with playful production to build understated hits, as he wistfully looks back on a past fling over bright flute synths and tinkering hi-hats. The lyricism displayed here is nothing special—BlocBoy may take the crown for the most senselessly evocative line when he raps, “You my baby like fetus,” on “Peach”—but the songs are breezy and fun without overextending their reach.

The same can’t be said for the syrupy R&B tracks, primarily handled by AUGUST 08 and 19-year-old singer NIKI. Woozy opener “La Cienega,” named for the major thoroughfare in L.A., is a cliché take on the tedium of fame, erected on blasé lyrics about the “glitz” of “la la land” and a hulking synth line that aims for sensuousness but instead comes off hammy. Later on, “I Want In,” a dedication to willingly losing sight of a lover’s imperfections in a haze of lust, sees AUGUST 08 and NIKI trying to embrace the sounds of caribana and soca to listless results, a duller version of one of PARTYNEXTDOOR’s dancehall-tinged melodies.

That’s the issue at the core of Clouds: Most of its songs sound too familiar. For an album that was created by 88rising as a means of promoting its talent, it provides very little opportunity for the label’s artists to have their own voice. The big-name features compound this problem, as they dictate the tone of the songs they appear on. The Playboi Carti-led “Beam,” for example, is a lo-fi Murda Beatz-produced banger that would fit in seamlessly on the Atlanta rapper’s latest album, Die Lit, but then Rich Brian shows up and more or less repeats Carti’s opening verse.

But if there’s one 88-signed act that does stand out on the compilation, it’s Higher Brothers, a quartet of rappers from Chengdu, China. Members MasiWei, DZknow, Psy. P, and Melo have been building a dedicated following in their home country for years now and they get to flex their muscles on tracks “Let It Go” and “Disrespectin,” which both feature the kind of rampageous, hard-hitting production that suits their kinetic brand of hip-hop. “I never look at the past, higher we go,” Psy. P belts on “Let It Go” in a mix of Mandarin and English. Here, Clouds briefly snaps out of its role as a playlist of serviceable summer jams and shows us what makes these artists special—and what the West has been missing out on.

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