88rising is the pet project of ex-Vice reporter Sean Miyashiro, that continues to defy traditional roles in the music industry, while remaining a powerful promotional force. In an unprecedented move, the company itself has released Head in the Clouds, a showcase of their associated acts, which includes Joji, Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga), and Niki to name a few. Thematically, the glossy, sugar-pop infused trap beats are consistent, which sustain the bouncy summer vibes that the predominantly Asian cast populate, while a range of features provide some much needed variety.
From the outset the album opens strong, with one of Niki’s most nuanced and angsty performances on La Cienega, and the effortlessly cool Red Rubies, complete with flutey synthesisers and tame bass. The solid opener is maintained on Swimming Pool, which was left in the capable hands of the Higher Brothers, a Chinese quartet who are proving to be the rising stars of the quasi-label. All four maintain punchy flows while switching effortlessly between English and Mandarin, and the Trippie Redd-esque delivery from MaSiWei in the chorus carries just enough edge to contrast with the almost surgical beat perfectly. 03 Greedo has perhaps the most forgettable performance of the project, with his feature being relegated to the last verse, and ultimately, it begs the question; was he needed? Unfortunately, this question becomes more and more prevalent as the listener continues down the tracklist, with tracks like Peach Jam and Japan88 being the most notable offenders. The former totes a cringe inducing attempt from BlocBoy JB to deliver several melodic lines on a fruity, saccharine beat which couldn’t be further from his comfort zone. While Peach Jam is particularly bad, it’s the rule and regrettably not the exception, with almost every other feature ranging from forgettable to straight immersion breaking.
Features of Head in the Clouds has been one the most confusing elements of the project, as the team effort format that’s being displayed inherently lends itself to be independent. There’s a nagging thought that has proven to be impossible to ignore, that suggests that the features could suggest some apprehension from 88rising about the acceptance of a predominantly Asian hip hop album. Indeed, 03 Greedo and BlocBoyJB certainly would top most lists for most authentic new rappers, with 03 alone having recently been sentenced to 20 years in prison. If nothing else, a lot of the features are redundant, as all of their parts on their respective tracks could have been filled by a member of 88rising, but fundamentally it seems to be a symptom of a larger failing on the part of the record; an inability to properly use the talent provided. Niki and AUGUST08 are largely relegated to their own tracks, while Joji is presented as the main male vocals despite access to significantly more talented singers. It’s perplexing.
Continuing our focus on the main talent, Joji’s performances throughout are dry and forgettable, with a very two dimensional delivery and bland lyrics, with Rich Brian proving to be both filthy and frank in his lyrics, although his delivery can carry a infectious energy. Again, the Higher Brothers stand out in a positive light, with consistent flows and balanced performances, and AUGUST08’s smooth crooning manages to find it’s niche, with the track ‘I want in’ being a highlight due to his vocals.
As an album, Head in the Clouds is certainly a mixed bag, and it’s bloated tracklist isn’t helped by a selection of out of place features, or by a cast that seems lost and misaligned, despite their individual talents. This lack of synergy is a definite low point for a concept that is reliant on the entire record. There are plenty of insatiably catchy highlights and singles, but in return the album’s structure seems to have been an afterthought, an example being that the project questionably closes on the title track, which is totally devoid of any energy; not the strongest lasting impression for a summer project. Fundamentally, Head in the Clouds is a slightly above average bubblegum/trap fusion that should be perfect for the sun, yet is plagued by strange structural choices and a lack of identity. Regardless of the individual success of Head in the Clouds, I really hope this trend of record wide albums catches on.