Think of the world’s greatest hip-hop artists and Asian-American rappers are unlikely to spring to mind. But the fact that they do exist should no longer raise eyebrows. The Far East Movement, an Asian American hip-hop collective from Los Angeles, recently rocketed to giddy chart heights with its universal language of partying and clubbing. Before them there was Apl.d.Ap making his fame with the Black Eyed Peas, and Jin Au-Yeung, who embraced his ethnicity with a wry sense of humour, and was feted for it. Yet it says something about hip-hop and its audience that an Asian American hip-hop artist like Kero One, who is ringing with endorsements from industry grandees Will.I.Am, Aloe Blacc and Ohmega Watts, still feels the need to play his unbelievers’ game.
On Kinetic World, his third album, he challenges them to accept that ‘Asian American rapper’ is no oxymoron. On “Let Me Clarify”, the Korean American allows his detractors one line – “They say K you slanted eyed, from around the Bay/Did your race rice spark as long bangs in your face?” – before he dismisses them out of hand: “Here to raise the bar, watch your head when I move it/give me one verse, I’ll leave your head with contusions/Egos are bruising with more flavour than cumin/season it, chop it, dice it, fry it up and call it music/Chef Kero One here to slice through illusions/Give me one verse, I’ll clarify all confusion.”
So what is it about Asian-American rappers that’s so risible? Is hip-hop so strangled by stereotypes that it can’t accept the pint-sized yellow kid with a pallid complexion who slings rhymes on the odd occasion that his nose isn’t in a textbook? Rappers like Gordon Tsai (aka G.O.W.E.) certainly think so. In a recent article in the Northwest Asian Weekly Tsai said, “Hip-hop was created out of poverty, and this whole idea that Asian-Americans are the model minorities leads to the belief that they can’t possibly have struggles to talk about”. A belief that’s false on at least two counts. First, it’s anachronistic to insist that to be a qualified hip-hop artist you need to have crack-addled street cred. The runaway successes of Kanye West, Drake and Tinie Tempah, a dapper 21-year-old British grime artist, attests to the fact that you needn’t be a hustler to be a veritable rapper. Thanks also to Kanye and more recently to the likes of Nicki Minaj, the boundary between hip-hop and its frivolous distant cousin, pop, has become so faint that it makes little sense to draw one.
The belief that Asian Americans have nothing ‘real’ to rhyme about is also balderdash because Asian American rappers do have something real to rhyme about. It’s that little thing called racism and being discriminated against by their trade. But it’s how they treat it that’s often a factor in whether they find a respectable audience. Jin rode above the rest because he managed to subvert his outsider status by parodying his own culture, and enjoyed the last laugh because of it.
Kero One, who views his art as something of a motivational platform, wants to operate on another plane altogether. A plane on which hip-hop is colour blind, and anyone can rap. That’s why on Kinetic World he attempts to dispel any stubborn, lingering misgivings about his legitimacy. Only then can he move on (and the world with him, he hopes). The danger of setting the record straight, though, is that self-justification can end up begging for the respect that’s deserved. Thankfully Kero One avoids the gallows with opener “Let’s Clarify” successfully painting his detractors as deaf nincompoops. He is in fact at his most entertaining and compelling when cocking a verbal Glock at naysayers. “Asian Kids” (featuring Tablo, Myk and Dumfoundead) gleefully flips a middle finger at all those who ever called a yellow kid a “chink” or “William Hung”. The track may not put up a Public Enemy-style front, but Kero One has not sounded this voluble since he censured all those “freeloading MCs” for usurping the limelight by dint of foul-mouthed braggadocio on his seminal first single “Check the Blueprints”.
Having floated the notion of a democratic hip hop, the rest of Kinetic World is worryingly anodyne. Yet it doesn’t come off unforgivably limp, if only because its creator is so mild mannered and self-effacing. Even when he plays the underdog, he never smothers you with it. In a business that’s been asphyxiated by bragging rights, egos and alter egos, Kero One’s penchant for quiet self-reflection is somewhat bracing. So devoid is he of bling and flossin’ that he can rhapsodize about his visceral love for hip hop culture (“Remember All That”), uncompromised by the trappings of success (“The Fast Lane”), and sound absolutely genuine and principled. In a world that has created cynics of us all, he manages to make the listener feel churlish for rolling an eyeball at his life-affirming moments (“Kinetic World” featuring emerging underground legend Fashawn). Kero One is like a hip hop pied piper (who incidentally runs his own record label Plug for underexposed artists). When he says, “I ain’t drugging, thugging, dealing dope by the dozens/and music’s relative, I’m slinging hope to my cousins”, you want to believe him. Hip-hop as a motivational platform is nothing new of course; from its inception one of its greater purposes was to get kids off the streets and into dance halls.
There is the obvious danger that all this fair weather content can be frustratingly unaffecting, bromidic even. And at times they really are. “Let’s Ride” is so unexceptional a celebration of a driver’s freedoms that it’s scarcely worth mentioning. (You can be sure Kero One’s marque isn’t a Lamborghini Murciélago.) “My Devotion” would probably be less chafing if it were a straightforward rant about the absurdities of corporate slavery. But it comes off like an apologist’s justification for an ‘alternative’ lifestyle – a musician’s lifestyle – and so panders to the very Asian stereotypes its author has tried so hard to rebuff.
Kero One is also more restrained as a producer on Kinetic World, shying away from the pan-genre approach of Early Believers, his second album, and the sampling gusto, intricacy and multi-layering of his debut Windmills of the Soul. Still, there are moments to relish: the jazzy riffs on “Missing You” that recall Jay Dee and J Rawls; the breezy guitar filigrees on “Let’s Ride”; the brass-blazing disco-funk of “We Stay Fly”. Kero One is less astute when he attempts to do it like Kanye (“Let’s Ride”). But the potential is there, even if the histrionics of ‘Conway’ aren’t.
If his third album isn’t perfect, or even his best, you can bet that Kero One still has a lot of mileage. Windmills of the Soul and Early Believers demonstrated his protean abilities as a Fender Rhodes-playing producer, but he has yet to bewilder us with his versatility as a writer, capable of dropping scintillating wordplay and storytelling on subjects that extend beyond ‘keeping it real’. He may want hip-hop to be colour neutral, but it doesn’t mean he should eschew references to his roots. Like Jin, he should revel in it, let it galvanise his artistry rather than become an albatross. Even if the world remains resistant to the notion of the Asian American rapper, what we don’t want is for Kero One to be justifying his talents again.