88rising: A Sonic Mosaic

Photo Courtesy of 88rising.

Rich Brian stands only 5’8”, but onstage he performs in front of a massive projection of his own face. At first, it appears that he’s clowning his own larger-than-life persona, putting a lampshade on the fact that this guy is making this type of music. But after six other acts of 88rising members, the concept of normal hip hop and R&B performers doesn’t really matter anymore. Outsider art becomes insider art and preconceptions dissolve, and everyone on that stage appears as a complete natural.

It’s not a traditional show with an opener and a headliner: what we get instead is an assembly of many distinct parts, each performer doing about a half hour of music adding up to three hours. It’s not as exhausting as that sounds because of how well the acts are ordered. After the noisy, glitchy hip hop of KOHH comes the lovestruck R&B of Niki. Sandwiched in between the star-powered trap of Rich Brian and the bombastic hip hop of Higher Bros are the depressive soundscapes of Joji. Considering all the acts in isolation would miss the true pleasure of the concert: seeing all these members compliment and accent each other, going into each new act with the memory of the previous act. For instance, Joji’s heartbroken Will He sounds incredibly despairing contrasted with Niki’s upbeat breakup banger Vintage (Joji’s strained vocals grind against Niki’s pristine coo), and Rich Brian’s hip hop is almost relaxing after the Higher Bros push the genre to its energetic limit.

…the concept of normal hip hop and R&B performers doesn’t really matter anymore. Outsider art becomes insider art and preconceptions dissolve, and everyone on that stage appears as a complete natural.

In fact, that mashup approach is the business model of 88rising itself: assembling a video production house, a record label, and a marketing agency into a ‘mass media company’. Speaking of which, I’ve never seen better use of a video projection screen. The stage is frequently dominated by colourful, kaleidoscopic images or glitch-art, making it appear that either the computer is failing or your eyes are. Sometimes it’s a projection of a music video, sometimes home movie footage, and during a sing-along, sometimes it reads, word by word, “I don’t give a fuck about a motha-fuckin’ po.” Oftentimes, the performer will walk up to a platform halfway up the screen and become a black silhouette, surrounded by psychedelia –KOHH does this frequently, and it’s part of what makes his act so disorienting.

I’ll confess my preconceptions: I knew Rich Brian by his old name, and assumed he was some kind of Lil Dicky-esque joke. I also knew Joji from his old music, and assumed something similar about a clown going straight. This has been a landmark year for edgy internet rappers becoming serious artists with varying success. But at the 88rising show my preconception was revealed to be more of a prejudice, and I realized that all music, even funny music, is worth taking seriously. Rich Brian is at ease with the intersection between self deprecation and braggadociousness, and when he raps, it is utterly clear that regardless of the discussion about cultural interaction surrounding him, he belongs onstage.

But at the 88rising show my preconception was revealed to be more of a prejudice, and I realized that all music, even funny music, is worth taking seriously.

In the show’s final act, 88rising all join forces onstage, singing their collective numbers from their new album. It’s the payoff to nearly three hours of musical buildup, after seeing the individual personalities complement each other one after another, we finally see the parts become the whole, and it’s like a melody becoming a harmony. Midsummer Madness has a wistful tune that borders on the twee, transforming the words ‘fuck the rules’ from an ordinary hip hop boast into an expression of pure adolescent joy, and ‘you were fucked up, I was wasted’ into a strangely innocent sentiment. Head in the Clouds might describe the joyful experience of seeing a collective come together, but it makes this group seem more naive than they truly are: after heartbreak, depression, and lots of tough days, we finally get to feel blissful.

It’s the payoff to nearly three hours of musical buildup, after seeing the individual personalities complement each other one after another, we finally see the parts become the whole, and it’s like a melody becoming a harmony.

Joji’s Slow Dancing in the Dark becomes the show’s unofficial refrain. The haunting ballad begins in typical Joji fashion: depressive, atmospheric instrumentation glides over a slowly propulsive drumbeat, while Joji’s weary lyrics and voice evoke heartbreak. But as the song continues, it morphs into a declarative chorus, hitting a monumental crescendo with the word ‘dark’. This song closes both Joji’s set and the encore, in which every member of 88rising belts that word a capella, and in this moment the music transcends its context and becomes an operatic expression of pure emotion, transforming sadness into celebration.

 

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