Cross Cultural Amnesia: Who is Rich Brian?

Rapping wunderkind is at crossroads from novelty meme to budding star

By Matthew Gozzip  Staff Writer 

Photo courtesy of Genius.com

Brian Immanuel is attempting to become a serious artist. After spending half a decade making dark comedy and frenetic Vine videos, Immanuel entered the rap game, jokingly under the portmanteau “Rich Chigga,” a combination of his Chinese heritage and the n-word. The rapper formed a prominent profile in the industry, releasing a slew of singles and features with high-profile artists, garnering fans and critics along the way for his problematic moniker and nature in his music.

All of the hype culminated in the release of “Amen,” a starry-eyed, glossy rendition of modern trap rap with a flare that only Immanuel’s unique voice brings. Though it was an undeniable chart success, “Amen” is a fragile assemblage of parts that appear to sync well, but end up becoming more of a disjointed puzzle than a beautiful mosaic.

The project is a self-proclaimed rebirth for Immanuel, a departure from the caricature many of his followers embraced him for. Originally an introverted teenager from Indonesia, Immanuel learned English from Youtube videos and Judd Apatow movies, fueling his curiosity for the obscene and comedic relief.  Immanuel’s rise to stardom was controversial due to this overly playful demeanor and underdeveloped thoughts on race identity in rap. Eventually, he became self-aware of his place in the genre as an outsider and made a conscious effort to craft a personal voice, hence his decision to drop the “Rich Chigga” moniker and simplify it to “Rich Brian.” In an interview for Fader in 2016, he talked about his desire to conceal his identity from his music.

“I really don't think [my race] should matter,” said Immanuel. “Like I don't think it should be a thing that needs to be asked, like, ‘Oh shit, are you an Asian rapper?’ You know, I'm Asian, but this is part of the reason why I regret having Rich Chigga.”

Needless to say, there was excitement for “Amen,” resulting in it becoming the top-selling album on the hip-hop charts for iTunes, making Immanuel the first Asian artist to achieve such a feat. Despite that, there is growing concern about whether people are actually listening to lyrics. Immanuel played off the irony of the image of an Asian rapper among his predominantly black contemporaries in the rap game, though at times he seemed unaware that this act could be more of a novelty than appreciation of his music.

The pieces are still strewn everywhere, but once he is able to connect them together and move away from his former persona, Immanuel will be able to establish himself as an artist and not a sideshow.

The major narrative changes and refined production on “Amen” presents Immanuel in a different light and is an improvement on his earlier works. The album is a collection of singles that either touch upon personal issues, reflect introspective moments of growing up, or are undercooked trap songs. These styles can coexist together on an album but they are so sporadically sprinkled that the juxtaposition of the two becomes a tedious effort instead of a graceful harmony between the two.

It’s disappointing too because plenty of songs on “Amen” present a unique voice. The ideas for the album are refreshing for a genre that is quickly being buried under artists more concerned with image and profit. Immanuel is attempting to pioneer a personal sound that is equal parts cathartic in narrative for him and explorative in sound. “Enemies” and “Kitty” are a solid 1-2 punch at the end of the album, bookend by relaxing riffs “See Me” and “Little Prince.” The features complement Immanuel well and don’t detract from his voice. On “Attention,” Immanuel and Migos member Offset make a synchronous duo that could lead to even more high-profile collaborations for the rising star.

Even if it’s not a consistent project, “Amen” is a great first offering. Immanuel possesses undeniable talent for an artist who has only been rapping for a couple of years. The pieces are still strewn everywhere, but once he is able to connect them together and move away from his former persona, Immanuel will be able to establish himself as an artist and not a sideshow.