At a time when artists are rewarded most by social media savvy and internet virality, there are fewer barriers than ever to mainstream music success. Indonesian rapper Rich Brian (real name Brian Imanuel), exemplifies this trend of internet phenomena being able to grow beyond their internet roots. Rich Brian continues steadily rising above expectations and surpassing limitations in a harrowing ascent to hip-hop legitimacy.
Music was not always in the cards for Imanuel. He first developed a knack for creating darkly funny content on platforms like Vine and then mastered social media entertainment and eventually crossed over to music with “Dat $tick” (2016), a parody of the trap genre that showed a bit too much of real rapping talent to be a complete spoof. Released under the name Rich Chigga, this track became an internet sensation, charting well but never received as a serious rap debut. His name presented a particular problem, since “Rich Chigga” is an appropriation of obvious origin that many found offensive. Since then, Imanuel has scrapped that identity and started anew as Rich Brian, releasing “Amen” (2018). Production on “Amen” was handled mostly by Imanuel himself, which grants the record an individuality that further cements the project as his most convincing and mature statement yet.
The album kicks off with “Amen,” a hard-hitting track that features Rich Brian rapping over a skeletal beat with no hook. Rich Brian’s flow is technically impressive, firing off a steady stream of bars that sticks tightly to the instrumental. “Amen” is a confident title track that displays many of the finer qualities Rich Brian has to offer, yet also highlights his main weakness: lyrical content. Most tracks on the album employ a blend of self-deprecating, humorous and classically boastful lyrics that range in quality. Rich Brian comes off as earnest and sincere across the board, but that is not necessarily conducive to the emphatic, quoteworthy lines coming from the best rappers around. Even with an appearance from Migos’ rising star Offset, the album’s fifth track, “Attention,” feels slightly flat and lacks the Atlanta flair it should have. Songs that seek to emulate some of the most successful trap artists like Migos do not dominate the record, however.
Production shifts to a more melodic and lowkey style in some of the most listenable songs on “Amen.” Featuring Joji, the musician and internet sensation also known as Filthy Frank, “Introvert” is set over a pretty instrumental with distinct percussion and a solid groove. The lyrics on this song remind us how young Imanuel is, contemplating how he “coulda kissed that girl, but it ain’t relevant / Coulda made that move, I’m regrettin it.” He is only 18 after all, and lyrics that resonate with a teenage audience will be an asset for growing his fan base.
Other highlights include “Cold,” an atmospheric cut with warped pianos that continues the album’s autobiographical theme, providing some of the finer lyrics on the project: “I don’t take drugs I just take naps.” Although Rich Brian’s lyrical shortcomings do not take away from how easy it is to enjoy this record, this is hard to reconcile with the fact he can certainly do better. The era of hip-hop we are in is more production and melody-focused than ever, with some of the most prolific artists such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert offering little substance in their lyrics. It is an expressionist form of making music that strikes audiences with emotion the way music should, but it never requires them to think too hard. Highly talented producers have now become more visible than ever, bringing legitimacy and anticipation even to records of weaker artists because people care about exciting new beats.
Rich Brian is indeed a talented producer, and “Amen” includes the best work he has done on this front. The project’s sonically original cuts are the most intriguing, and Imanuel has the potential to become an essential voice in the genre. In order to do so, he will need to focus on honing his storytelling and lyrical craft while expanding upon the themes of “Amen.” The essential ingredients are all there, as Rich Brian has already proven his talents beyond what the world expected with the release of this album. And to think it all started off as a joke.