Rich Brian Offers a Glimpse at What a YouTube-Reared Generation of Rappers Looks Like

As the era of conscious backpack rap fades, Brian Immanuel’s debut Amen hints at a new wave of overly-self-conscious, Internet-savvy fanny pack rap.

Brian Imanuel is the latest thing people who don’t go on the Internet probably don’t know about. Despite a recent appearance on the Late Late Show, the eighteen-year-old Indonesian rapper’s persona has been confined to—and constructed by—visual and social media channels since he discovered the learning possibilities inherent in YouTube how-to videos at an early age. Originally logging on to troubleshoot his Rubik’s Cube, Imanuel has since familiarized himself with the streaming platform, inadvertently learned the English language, and risen to popularity among the first (and, sadly, only) generation of Vine personalities.

His six-second loops of inane dialogue paved the way for the crossover success of his debut rap single “Dat $tick” in 2016 and its accompanying video—surprisingly not just one of the then-sixteen-year-old’s Vines stretched to a relatively epic two minutes. While the humor of Imanuel’s Vines reflected the influence of American YouTube videos on his comprehension of the English language and US culture, his output under the Rich Brian moniker (née Rich Chigga) excelled mostly due to his focus on a single channel: XXL. Sure there was some crossbreeding between Imanuel’s Internet humor (dat fanny pack), but the track aptly aped hip-hop culture. It also kind of slapped.

With the release of his debut LP Amen, as well as the slew of preceding singles featuring the likes of Ghostface Killah, 21 Savage, and one of the three Migos, Brian proved that “$tick” was more than just shtick. Over the course of fourteen self-written, self-produced, and rarely co-rapped tracks, Brian displays an array of creative competencies likely not conveyed via the Rubik’s Cube tutorials he streamed so diligently in his youth. He even directs most of his own videos, as the poorly-timed Tarantino reference on “Trespass” boasts (actually a Joel Schumacher film, thank you very much). Though the project isn’t quite Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, it’s an unexpected turn from a performer whose allegiance to rap culture is incessantly muffled by his preference for naps over narcotics, Pellegrino over Perignon. It’s proof that the name Rich Brian can make as big a ripple in our culture as both the Vine personality Brian Imanuel and the singular success of “Dat $tick” have.

If the concept of a figure whose only outlet to American culture comes through a glowing screen—and who ultimately finds himself altering the zeitgeist once he’s removed from his quarantine—sounds exactly like something out of a movie, that’s because it is. Being There, the 1979 Peter Sellers comedy based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, follows a gardener named Chance who is inexplicably reared by TV and let loose into the world as an adult oblivious to behavioral cues outside of the fragments of socialization he catches on the screen, ultimately finding himself in the position of advisor to the president. The comedic value of the film is largely derived from Chance being misread as an empathetic, intelligent human when, in fact, he merely expresses himself through repetition of the actions and talking heads of TV.

The activist Jerry Mander cites the implications of Kosinski’s novel in his 1978 manifesto—unsubtly titled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television—as a component of one of the titular arguments. Writing about the perils of TV’s tendency to deliver “images disconnected from the source,” Mander chalks up the medium’s capacity to replace real-life experience (i.e. being there) with televisual participation to being one of the primary schemes of TV’s apocalyptic agenda for the human brain. More than mere Luddite doomsaying, most of Mander’s arguments have proven accurate in the forty years since his book was published, and it’s still frightening to read it today considering how much more influence television has since had on our society and politics.

Much has changed since 1978, of course—from the regular crossover success of TV stars to popular media besides film to the Internet’s continuation of TV’s legacy of fracturing information beyond recognition. Memes are a thing now, as are the people who have attained Internet celebrity for instigating them. Comedic reality TV in the twenty-first century has been largely characterized by celebrities finding themselves in environs starkly at odds with their cushy lifestyles and “real people”—lawyers, doctors, teachers—struggling to survive on an island lacking any sort of first-world civilization. While there’s certainly shades of good-TV-dictating-world-affairs guiding our politics today, what Mander failed to draw attention to was the reality of the comic relief inherent in the character of Chance, a new brand of entertainment fuelled by a viewing public’s desire to observe a subject far outside of its context.

Likewise, Brian’s experience with rap was reduced to the culture depicted in the genre’s videos; like Chance, he’s able to speak the language, but his personal experiences constrict his lyrical output to autobiography and imitation. In fact, his unabashed ferality offers much of the appeal of Amen: While his trap beats and monotonous cloud rap flow can be copied and pasted from an infinite scroll of SoundCloud hopefuls, his ability to riff on his Kosinskian naivete boosts his DIY approach to utter revineability. Sifting through the narcotics-infused lyrics of $UICIDEBOY$ Brian comes out with a reference to their deep-cut “La Croix,” while behind every bar in which he does flaunt a rap ego lies a Genius annotation disclosure about, say, the fights he provokes (“Never been in a fistfight. It would just be random YouTube comment fights, man”) or the new Benz he’s eyeing (“I don’t know why I wrote that line. I gotta, like, focus on getting a driver’s license first”). 

In an era of musicians whose music takes the backseat to their web presence, Rich Brian stands out with an unflinching self-awareness likely attributable to his rearing in a culture for which such Chancisms are now the norm. Amen feels like a proper introduction to the artist in all of his forms—a rapper on “Glow Like Dat,” a vocalist on “Flight,” a beatmaker on “Cold,” a collaborator on “Attention,” and a ringleader of modern art brut humor in the skit which closes the album. While Brian has long ago proven his allegiance to Chance the Gardener, coming through with a serious (with an asterisk), focused LP takes him a leap closer to Chance the Rapper—a fusion which may some day culminate in the greatest output since microwaved #bread. FL

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