This year has been momentous for many reasons. Covid-19 continues to trundle along globally, leaving lockdowns and daily disruptions in its wake. In China, figures in the creative and entertainment industries continue to come under scrutiny for sexual improprieties; and the face of the industry, in general, continues to change for reasons related to technology, musicality, and a multitude of other forces.
In a fundamental sense, though, the music continues to overshadow all of these developments. 2021 was another fantastic year for diverse music offerings, with some excellent high-profile collaborations, the rise of exciting new labels, and cutting-edge musical statements.
It was also a good year in music for RADII, as we launched our SoundCheck podcast, which features Wes Chen, host of hip hop show thePark, and Bryan Grogan talking about the best music every month. You can listen to that here.
Now, without further ado, here’s (almost) everything we loved and loathed in music coming out of China this year.
Three of China’s most creative hip hop artists, J-Fever, Zhou Shijue, and Eddie Beatz teamed up in August for a nine-track collaborative album, 心愈频率 (Xin Yu Pinlu, which translates roughly to ‘Heart-Healing Frequency’). The result is genuinely heart-healing on multiple levels.
J-Fever and Zhou Shijue are known for their conscious rap style and decided to do this project a few years back. However, they did not find a proper way to release the album until this year due to record label issues.
J-Fever. Image courtesy of J-Fever
The record taken together as a whole is gorgeous, full of beautiful production choices, and pared back to allow J-Fever and Zhou Shijue’s idiosyncratic vocal timbres and expert lyrical pacing to flow organically. J-Fever has cultivated an incredible catalog of releases over the years, and his conscious rap style has won him a loyal fanbase.
This collaboration with two like-minded artists, Zhou Shijue and Eddie Beatz (who also teamed up on another record in 2021), makes it our favorite record of the year.
It’s always tricky to pick just one song from 12 months of releases as the best of the year. With that being said, we’ve decided to pick two songs that helped sum up the mood of 2021 for us, both of which capture the yearning that the continued fallout of Covid-19 has imbued in people worldwide.
First up, Kaishandao’s “Hearsay,” which was released in April and is part of her six-track EP Homeland. The track explores the concept of home in people, places, and spaces. The song sees Kaishandao cut together a bunch of different samples over a thumping bassline. But it is the message behind Homeland as a whole, and the comfort and joy that “Hearsay” gives us, that makes this track one of our favorites of the year.
In January, producer Yu Su released her first full-length project, Yellow River Blue, on recently founded bié Records (now home to the likes of Hualun, Salty Tomorrow, and more). Yellow River Blue is full of beautiful tracks, like the opener “Xiu,” which she later reworked with Xiamen producer Knopha.
But it is “Melaleuca” and “Melaleuca (Night)” that truly caught our attention. The laidback romanticism of the latter gets us, while the infectious funk beats and hi-hat syncopation on “Melaleuca,” along with an incredible MV by animator Jordan Minkoff, had us dreaming of international travel.
Silent Speech were one of a few different bands to drop their first full-length album in 2021. As mentioned above, The 尺口MP finally released their first album this year, as did Guangzhou indie band Nouvelle and Chengdu outfit FayZz.
While we loved all of those records, Silent Speech’s 18-track effort, Law of Instability/Orderly Chaos, stands out for its sheer length and audacity. As we mentioned when we reviewed it earlier this year, the group cites mysterious intellectual figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arthur Rimbaud as influences, a bravado that we like to see.
The diversity of the music on display is impressive in itself, and we’re drawn to its length and experimentalism, which necessitates repeat listens.
By far, the most momentous thing to happen in the music industry in 2021 was the arrest of the hugely famous Kris Wu on suspicion of rape. For years, Wu has been one of the most popular musicians and celebrities in China and has even managed to make inroads in the global market, something that few Chinese musicians ever manage to do.
As RADII staff writer Lu Zhao wrote in August, “Following his detainment, Wu’s accounts were taken down from the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, online culture community Douban, and TikTok’s domestic version, Douyin. Some of the pop idol’s songs have been removed from music streaming sites, and his personal pages have also disappeared on video streaming platforms such as iQIYI and Tencent Video.”
Kris Wu. Image via Depositphotos
The news had repercussions throughout the industry and in the culture of celebrity fandom, which has become huge in China over the past decade or so. While Chinese authorities had been attempting to reign in zealous fan groups before the news broke, the fallout saw Weibo pull its Star List, which ranked celebrities, and also saw the addition of more celebrities to an influencer blacklist, like Word of Honor star Zhang Zhehan.
Cover image compiled by Sabina Islas
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