Undeniably, the K-pop industry contains a fair amount of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese idols. And, inevitably, collaborations exist between them and other K-pop artists. However, established acts outside of the Korean music sphere in other Asian countries are frequently overlooked as potential collaboration partners — often passed over in favor of more renowned western artists if not other Korean artists.

Of course, collaborations between K-pop acts and Western artists are monumental in building pathways to cultural exchange, giving both parties a unique opportunity to interact and mingle. Nevertheless, as scarce as these occasions might be, the collaborations between Korean artists and musicians of different Asian nationalities occur even more infrequently. Which is a shame, because joint ventures with other Asian artists provide just as good of a chance for cultural discourse and dialogue, perhaps through the artists themselves or between their respective audiences.

Nonetheless, this seems to be changing recently, at least in the underground Asian hip hop scene. The past few years have boasted a multitude of collaborations between artists of different Asian nationalities. First was the viral hit, “It G Ma,” which featured Korean rappers Keith Ape, Okasian, and JayAllDay, alongside the Japanese rappers KOHH and Loota. Next, the Indonesian rapper Rich Chigga created another crossover single, “Gospel,” headlining the aforementioned Keith Ape with the addition of the up and coming controversial American rapper, XXXTENTACION. Afterwards, Keith Ape featured on “WeChat,” a track created by the Higher Brothers  a group signed  to the label 88rising, which also houses Rich Chigga, among other promising Asian hip hop artists. 

The latest to date in this series of international Asian collaborations is the Higher Brothers’ “Franklin,” featuring Jay Park and produced by the American rapper, Jedi-P — of whom has appeared on a Keith Ape track in the past. This sort of thing isn’t a first for Jay Park either, seeing that he featured on a track in 2012 with Malaysian pop star, Mizz Nina.

But what makes this collaboration so unusual and unexpected, even in comparison with the other similar collaborations in the past, is the juxtaposition between the mainstream hip hop circle that Jay occupies, and the less well-known kind of trap scene in which the Higher Brothers have carved out a niche. Sure, one could make the argument that Jay Park can technically be considered as underground. After all, he is part of his own self-created label; one that could hardly be categorized as large and commercialized. However, his past in an idol group and his relative commercial success in Korea makes him stand apart from KOHH, Rich Chigga, and his collaborators, the Higher Brothers — all of whom have yet to become household names in the mainstream music spheres of their home countries.

I’m not particularly well-versed in Chinese hip hop, but Higher Brothers is one of the few acts that I actively follow in the scene. For those who aren’t as familiar with them, however, they are a hip hop quartet originating from the Chengdu region of mainland China, consisting of the members Psy P., MaSiWei, DZ — the latter of whom is endearingly dubbed “snorlax” by the Higher Brothers’ Youtube audience due to his appearance — and Melo, who was absent from “Franklin.” Their aggressive delivery and rhythmic flow has garnered comparisons to the platinum-selling American rap trio, the Migos. MaSiWei’s delivery, in particular, appears to have some influence from the hip hop duo, Rae Sremmund. Looks-wise, I would describe him as the Walmart version of Show Me the Money‘s season 5 runner up, C-Jamm.

Although I’m making light of them for the purpose of making the otherwise unexciting task of revealing their background information more entertaining, their lyrics are no joke. “WeChat” takes subtle jabs at China’s societal ills: the plastic surgery epidemic, the prevalence of counterfeit items, and government restriction of the Internet. In fact, Melo was almost arrested last year for criticizing government policies regarding Uber in his Soundcloud release, “Uber Rap.” Their newest release treads on similarly socially conscious ground.

Their lyrics are a subversion of the typical boastful rap lyrics that one might expect from a group of early 20-year olds clad in Air Jordans and BAPE accessories. MaSiWei’s verse discusses a desire for the high life, rather than actually living it:

I gotta buy an airplane hanger
I gotta buy a submarine
I gotta get a mansion with a pool in Hollywood Hills

DZ’s verse is especially memorable, exploring the poor socioeconomic status that prompt so many people to commit crimes:

Breaking into your house with a ski mask on, telling you I’m so poor that I can’t afford ice cream

Likewise, Psy P. paints an unglamorous picture of the die-hard criminal lifestyle:

Danger gets closer when darkness falls, do you choose money or life?

In the hook, this is all tied together by a thinly veiled reference to the video game character, Franklin of Grand Theft Auto (GTA). For those who don’t play GTA, Franklin could be described as a character who is still stuck in the “rags” stage of the “rags to riches” narrative, trying to make a living by hustling on the street and committing crimes for money, with the hope of striking it rich. He’s had a less than ideal upbringing, considering the history of substance addiction and abuse in his family. The happy ending of his grim life story is still quite out of reach for him, and probably always will be. The Higher Brothers’ verses accurately portray the bleakness of this lifestyle.

By all means, this way of life isn’t limited to GTA, but the usage of this reference is a clever way to make the content of the lyrics more relatable and interesting to audiences who are unaccustomed to such a lifestyle. In doing so, they bring the mentalities and struggles of the underprivileged to life for their audience, proffering a much needed lens to glimpse into this issue. And it all blends so smoothly together, up until Jay Park’s verse.

Jay rolls out looking fly in a layered outfit consisting of a leather jacket and patterned shirt, only to deliver an insipid and uninspired verse containing cliche content. Instead of following the subversion of the boastful rap ensuing the rest of the song, he plays this trope straight. In between his brags about “one hunnid hunnid racks” and “getting dollars,” he fails to make mention of the harsh realities of living a criminal life like GTA’s Franklin, contrary to the rest of the song.

This was slightly disappointing. Although Jay isn’t exactly known for deep and thought-provoking lyrics, I was hoping that he would at least make an attempt at it in this song, even just for the sake of taking the lead of his collaborators. Thematic issues aside, rhyming “rest” with “rest” and “boy” with “boy” is also indicative of lazy lyric writing. Though, I’ll acquiesce that his flow was passable and his delivery was decent, it truly wasn’t anything that remarkable either. 

As for the song’s productio, Jedi-P does only a so-so job. The beats are repetitive, alternating between a few similar patterns during each segment with muted 808s. There is almost no mixing or mastering, which may be a result of the rapper’s relative inexperience in producing music. It is reminiscent of a much simpler, less expertly produced, and more trap-influenced Nujabes track. But even though the technical aspects of the production are mediocre at best, the beat still works somehow. The slow-paced trap instrumental has a calming effect, which creates a nice contrast with the aggressive lyrics and contributes to an overall chill and laid-back atmosphere.

The video furthers this kind of vibe. It’s a low-key kind of surreal, like a watered-down version of a drug-induced hallucination. The MV itself wasn’t very high budget — as per usual with the Higher Brothers — alternating between only three locations: a riverside, a roadside, and a city area. Psy P., MaSiWei, and DZ lean against the hood of a black Cadillac on the roadside, befitting of the GTA theme.

The visual quality of the MV is intentionally poor, with raw looking edits of a badly superimposed starry night sky. Most of the scenes are filtered in a way that makes them look like a muted and more hazy version of what one would expect to see if they viewed a 3D movie without the accompanying glasses. It was the opposite of polished and professional, but that was probably the whole point — to create simple, trippy graphics that complement and augment the song’s minimalism. As a sidenote, props to MaSiWei for editing the entire video by himself.

Overall, it was another solid release by the Higher Brothers. In the scope of cultural exchange, the interrelationship between poverty and crime is a common theme shared upon Asian nations, as well as most other countries. It was commendable that the Higher Brothers decided to tackle this issue, infusing the song with their own possible personal anecdotes and discussing the topic indiscreetly in their lyrics. Notwithstanding, Jay Park doesn’t do the song much justice, skipping out on an opportunity in his verse to jump into this dialogue about crime and socioeconomic status.

Despite this glaring flaw in the song, I still see this collaboration largely as a positive thing — a step in the right direction. After all, it might signal better executed cross-national Asian collaborations to come, between Korean acts and other Asian musicians. Perchance these collaborations happen, they could potentially open the door to insightful cross-Asian discourse on other socio-cultural issues, maybe among other Korean artists better suited to provide their own individualized standpoints on such weighty matters and Asian artists of different origins that are correspondingly well-disposed to take on this role. And with the comeuppance of labels such as 88rising, which make these collaborations possible between different Asian artists by working to bring underground Asian hip hop talents into prominence, I have some confidence that my hopes have a good chance of being fulfilled. 

MV Rating: 3.3/5

(Youtube, NPR, Huffington Post, Pitchfork, Images via 88rising)