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Chinese Rap Wrap: FOX Debuts with “Born This Way” as Higher Brother Masiwei Pregames V-Day

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a bi-weekly RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, featuring the freshest talents, hottest new tracks, and biggest beefs from the world of Chinese rap.

Chinese Rappers to Watch

Even compared with his Walking Dead crew mate Key NG, who won the 2019 Rap of China championship, Xinjiang rapper FOX/Hu Tianyu seems to have attracted a whole load of public attention since competing on the variety show. Two years ago, Hu was an accountant in Yining city; one year ago, he had quit his job to become a full-time musician. Now he is backed by bros from the popular rap crews Walking Dead and Horse King; has received national recognition from the Rap of China stage; is followed by millions of fans online; and is one of five stars appearing in the iQIYI fashion-themed reality show FOURTRY, along with major celebrities Angelababy, Kris Wu and Will Pan — maybe because of his mullet hairstyle and vintage, hipster, sometimes confusing taste in clothing.

His musical style is less inscrutable. Having learned Peking Opera from his grandfather, FOX’s rap flow highlights classical-Chinese-poetry-like melodic rhythms, while his lyrics correspondingly feature elements from traditional opera and poetry. His enunciation is a lot clearer than most rappers — given that mumble rap is a thing now — and even exaggerates Mandarin tones, sometimes at the cost of his flow not sounding so smooth.

On January 13, FOX dropped his first official album, Born This Way. Most of the ten tracks continue his traditional Chinese music style, with lyrics covering his thoughts, reflections, and observations over the past year. In “Born with Pride,” “Words from Dad,” and “XIA” — the latter a collab with Sichuan soul singer MIA AIM — he describes his struggle to find a different path, while receiving a lot of criticism. “WenYan” is dedicated to his mom and her sacrifices for son and family. On “Chaos” FOX raps about people who succeed but forget where they came from, as an alert for himself as well. “Alive” is a very non-FOX-style collab with AR and singer Cao Fujia, recorded with a symphony orchestra. Reactions to that last one have been varied.

As probably the most successful young rapper from the show being supported by a bunch of crew mates (and veteran rappers such as MC GUANG), FOX has long been criticized by some fellow rappers as his star has risen. When the music video for “Born This Way” dropped — which FOX claimed was a tribute to Lady Gaga, who encouraged him to be himself and keep to his own style — the Sichuan-Tibetan rapper YOUNG13DBABY commented, “If this is a fashion partner [referring to FOURTRY’s Chinese name], I’d rather be unstylish in this life.” Soon fellow Sichuan rappers PSY P and Melo of Higher Brothers seconded the sentiment on Weibo.

It’s tough to adjust to a mainstream platform and the commercial world, but it’s even more difficult to try to find a balance or leeway between the market and the art. FOX has taken the time to explain a lot about his tracks in comments with Weibo users, which at least could be a sign that the rapper still cares about his music, and is eager to make progress.

New Chinese Rap Releases of Note

Earlier in January, Beijing rap star Saber dropped his second album, Pretty Fxxker, whose title was changed to “XX” after being released on streaming platform NetEase due to censorship considerations. The hardcore Beijing local keeps his lyrics filled with social commentary on “Lucifer,” “Real Rapper,” and especially the boombap track “W.I.D,” produced by his crew mates Spam and N-Bomb from Dungeon Beijing. Collabs “Ten” (with Mido from Dungeon Beijing), “Bei Shui Yi Zhan” (with Trouble Z and Joannne), and “If You Don’t Understand Me” (with NineOne#) are more melodic and softer, which is a fresh and different sound for Saber.

Related:

Beijing Rapper Saber on the Hip Hop Wave, and “Rap of China” from the Inside

In an interview with music outlet Yin Talk, Saber confirmed that he wanted to present a different side of himself on this album. “[Over the last] two years, I experienced a lot, changed a lot, and I’m not as ‘antisocial’ as before […] But the core of hip hop that I understand has never changed, which is the need to express the ideas and messages from my real life and stories,” he said, adding: “Tough and soft, both are me. Boom bap and new school, both serve the meaning I want to express. I want to choose something new now.”

On December 28 last year, former Yin Ts’ang and Bad Blood member Sbazzo officially dropped his latest album, CONTRAST, in Beijing. At the release performance, all-star guests showed up to support the real OG, including CEE from Shanghai’s Bamboo Crew, Nasty Ray from Beijing, Manchuker from Taiwan, and longtime hip hop radio and podcast host Wes Chen. Other supporters included established rappers like MAX, BOOM and Big Dog, as well as the younger generation represented by Dungeon Beijing, Cloudy Tunnel, and Tian Xia Guang Shun.

All-female rap crew Bu Liang Shao Nv (“Bad Girls”) dropped a self-titled album this month. The crew’s 16 members come from Wuhan, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Changsha, Kunming and Xi’an, with different skills and styles, including battle MC Lil Rocket, Nai Niu BABY from Yunnan label Monster Gang, and WENDYNONO, who matches catchy melodies with a smooth flow.

Lexie Liu recently dropped a collab with pop superstar and songwriter Li Ronghao, “Two Ordinary Young People,” in which Lexie and Li both rap their thoughts on whether there’s a standard of good or bad music, and the phenomenon of people criticizing each other’s tastes in music. Last month, Lexie’s single “Love and Run” was included on a list of the Top 100 songs of 2019 in China and the US by Apple Music.

Higher BrothersMasiwei is so in love. He posted a picture of himself and his girlfriend on Weibo, and will drop his first solo album on February 14, Valentine’s Day. The music video for one of the tracks, “The World Is Yours,” was released last week. In it, Masiwei raps in Sichuan dialect, encouraging young people to chase their dreams: “If I can do it, it means you can do it, too.”

Fellow Higher Brother Melo’s solo album will come out on March 15, and PSY P’s on April 19 — KNOWKNOW’s came out in December, as you might recall.

The Brothers may have drawn some more unwanted attention lately as well, thanks to an article on BBC Chinese translated from an English original from last November. The article questions “why Chinese rappers don’t fight the power” in the headline, with a picture of Masiwei and Melo, citing their pro-China Instagram posts during the Hong Kong protests last year. The answer might be rather obvious: anti-establishment or “real” rappers don’t appear on mainstream platforms, nor are they easily heard. But anyway — the Higher Brothers are sticking to “what they believe in,” and have said on Weibo that they’ll “challenge the BBC” and “open fire on the BBC”  in response to the article’s publication in Chinese.

As music media, RADII tries to introduce more serious, yet unseen, Chinese musicians to the English-speaking world. Whether Chinese artists are prepared to embrace a different space — where public opinion and views can be fundamentally different — is still a question, as is whether international commentators are willing to understand Chinese artists on their own terms.

Chinese Rap Underground

Iron Mic 2019, the 18th edition of the Chinese freestyle rap battle, wrapped up in Beijing this month. 20-year-old Beijing rapper Shou Chen won the national championship, joking that “I’m gonna be the national champion with the least followers on the internet.” Iron Mic took place in only four cities this year, evidently exerting less influence than the other national rap competition, 8 Mile Underground. The latter just finished a 17-city offline competition, and currently is taking an online voting round on their app, also called 8 Mile.

Chinese Rap in the Mainstream

Another used-to-be-underground rap competition, Listen Up, can be seen as a mainstream show now, having received sponsorship from the online video platform Mango TV. In the first half of January, auditions in Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Changsha will select potential contestants for the self-described “rap performance competition.” Further details about the show remain to be seen, but so far, we’ve already seen Chengdu rapper Kafe Hu, Lil Andy from Indigo Children, Dian Sheng Qi from Yunnan, and quite a few other established musicians get involved.

On a bigger stage, iQIYI’s idol-making talent show Youth With You has just launched. Its aim is to make a new girl group comprised of nine finalists. Cai Xukun (the standout participant from iQIYI’s 2017 gambit to produce a boy group, Idol Producer), will feature as one of the show’s coaches, along with Ella from Taiwan super girl group SHE, Lisa from K-pop group Black Pink, and veteran Nanjing “rap poet” Jony J.

More Chinese Rap Wrap:

Chinese Rap Wrap: Xinjiang’s AIR Drops the Perfect Album to End 2019

Chinese Rap Wrap: AR Puts Clout Rappers on Blast with “Pop Rap”

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van