The visual accompaniments of some of this year’s best hip hop and R&B songs from Asia weave worlds of their own—dystopian, hopeful, erotic—and yet feel somehow deeply connected. Forming a language of its own, viewers are transported to foreign lands with the familiar air of human instinct, our kindness and brutality unmasked.
Here are the 20 (there are two videos here by one artist counted as one, making the final count technically 21) best music videos of another pandemic year, our maiden voyage at HipHopDX Asia, ranked in no order of unquantifiable merit (just A to Z). — MC Galang, Editor
Words by MC Galang, Sofia Guanzon, and Lex Celera
Alisson Shore – “Hoya”
There is an electric current running in Alisson Shore’s “Hoya.” The Filipino pop-R&B artist’s vocal deft shows in spades, navigating light, dreamy melodies you can whistle to and rapid-fire verses. You can’t help but listen in excitement. But beyond the sonics, the song’s lyrical fixation on longing in the time of a pandemic creeps up on your shoulder, and you can’t help but feel a sense of emptiness.
The visual acts the same way: Alisson is all smiles while engaging in different activities. But he is alone in all but one particular sequence, celebrating what appears to be the birthday of a loved one he hasn’t seen in so long. The proxy of his affection is a ‘90s-era monitor, inanimate and unable to reciprocate. The lightness of it all casts a long shadow, and nothing is resolved, just understood. This specific feeling in these unprecedented times has become all too real. — LC
Audrey Nuna – “Space”
Korean-American rapper Audrey Nuna creates her own transient gulf of melancholy in “Space.” The haunting track is accompanied by visuals that evoke sensibilities of emptiness, hollowness, and self-preservation in cool shades of eerie blues. Acting out the role of a video game character as the video begins, Audrey acts out the simulation-like transitory phases of loneliness.
Moving almost like an oil painting that shifts each scene with every transition impossibly slow, the video seems otherworldly: with its intimate still lifes of the artist submerged to the bottom of a pool to being tied down in the middle of a room by her Rapunzel-esque hair with girls holding it at the ends to seemingly floating in a maze garden, viewers are visually transported to the trappings built within the world of the song. Buoyed by her isolated vocals and the track’s minimal production, the visuals sweep you in a trance that enraptures the viewer into a cloudlike netherworld. — SG
Awich – “口に出して”
Japan’s Awich has always admittedly felt like an outsider due to her Okinawan heritage. In “口に出して” (roughly translating to “Cheers to the Mouth”), she takes the throne as she’s introduced as the “No.1. Japanese female rapper” by veteran comedian Makita Sports while they spoof a late-night talk show.
Disruptive and unapologetically sensual, the video celebrates female sexuality with Awich pronouncing herself as a “sex icon,” a title not every rapper—much more female rapper—is comfortable claiming. Embracing how being ostracized in the past has fueled her, the rapper now asserts her place in the Japanese hip hop scene, proudly taking up space.
Refreshingly, the video advances representation of Japanese women who lean into their sexual power, contrary to the submissive and one-dimensional ideal of Japanese women often portrayed in popular media and expected in the conservative Japanese society. — SG
Balming Tiger – “LOOP?”
If you were to trace the aesthetic leanings of alternative K-pop group Balming Tiger, you would be left with many disparate yet somehow interconnected network of branching lines. The same could be said of its individual members and their solo projects, none of which are bereft of any creative juice. The energy they put out comes from an unending wellspring of fun, even when it takes a dark turn.
While the visual for “LOOP?” features a more downcast tone compared to its predecessors, it still packs a certain frenetic dynamism that forms the greater foundation of the group’s filmography. One could unearth tropes from contemporary cinema utilized in the music video—a reflection of their cross-cultural approach towards basically everything—but it all builds towards their collective mythology. Whether it’s the song or the music video, they’re more than capable of making it their own, and seemingly without any effort at that. — LC
Bambu – “SAMOAN CRICKET BAT”
The vividness of Bambu’s “SAMOAN CRICKET BAT” is disarming—images spring from words instantaneously: no fluff, no punditry. These are neither choice words nor sloganeering; this is storytelling the way hip hop was always meant to be. The story of “SAMOAN CRICKET BAT,” as director Eugene Kim compellingly shows, is not a tale of coincidence or fate. It’s a byproduct of choices and those who have been making them.
“And if he got a gang protecting that said killer / Then y’all going to turn all these victims into killers,” Bambu raps. Violence begets violence. There is no turning the other cheek, no diplomacy, and certainly no waiting around for justice if the perpetrators and enablers themselves are the supposed enforcers of a broken, racist system. “Can a man condemn himself?” civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael echoed Camus and Sartre in 1966. “Can [white people, particularly liberal whites] stop blaming us, and blame their own system? Are they capable of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion?”
Malcolm X addressed it more firmly in 1962: “Stop sweet-talking [the white man]. Tell him how you feel…. [Let him know that] if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.” Moreover, he warned the crowd, which included white people: “[If you] put your hands on us thinking that we’re going to turn the other cheek — we’ll put you to death just like that.” Bleed between the lines. — MG
Bass Relief – “Seasons of Orion” ft. DJ Short, DYHA, Bigboi, and Fuwowoy
Bass Relief’s “Seasons of Orion,” the lead single from his 2021 Radical EP, takes stock in the slowness, rather than malaise, of the pandemic. Both things can be true, but the intentional pacing of the Rocky Balderas-directed clip forces us to observe closely, appreciate more fully: each scratch, the sampled Francis Magalona guitar riff, and the deeper, rounder bass sound he wanted to employ in his latest work.
But above all, the great thing about the “Seasons of Orion” video is how it centers the Filipino DJ-producer, a dancer, and Manila skyline: a glimpse of Pinoy hip hop’s rich culture that is much, much more than rap. — MG
Bawal Clan, Owfuck – “LaPain”
In “LaPain,” hip hop collectives Bawal Clan and Owfuck come together for a chilling visual. Following the title’s double-entendre, “LaPain” refers to the English word pain and the Tagalog word for “to maul or slaughter.”
The video shows blood-soaked “creatures” encased in a glass box, as the rappers watch menacingly, some unperturbed. Gian Mawo’s direction creates the illusion of the viewer slowly approaching the bloody creatures as they lament personal afflictions. Yet amidst all the gore, every frame looks intentional, as it oscillates between starkly contrasting visual markers: lighting shifts between red and blue, both searing and chilly, representing the good and the bad. Edited with control and foresight, it intertwines extreme opposites to construct a cinematic visual out of juxtaposition, tempered with piercing body horror. — SG
CHANMINA – “BIJIN”
Set against traditional Japanese stylings, CHANMINA is an empress of beauty in the music video for “BIJIN,” which translates to “A Beautiful Person.” Impeccably dressed and masterfully made up, the female rapper acts opposite iconic Japanese actor (and CHANMINA fan) Masahiro Takashima, who plays the “expert of beauty.”
The video weaves together a satirical portrait of detrimental beauty standards with high-energy performances drawing from the American high-stylized dance of voguing. Subverting the archetype of a submissive female consort during the much more conservative and restrictive eras of the past, the Japanese-Korean star illuminates the extreme ends brought by the illusory perfection of female beauty.
Albeit ending tragically, CHANMINA crafts a satirical critique of how oppressive standards of physical beauty can be on young women while coming into her own as an artist at the helm of her own visual narratives. Both empowering and enraging, “BIJIN” invites viewers to reflect on the dangers these “standards” pose on our society today. — SG
Jinmenusagi – “Kiwotzukenah” ft. ACE COOL
The predictable violence of Japanese rapper Jinmenusagi’s “Kiwotzukenah” (Be Careful) featuring Ace Cool is not one of the graphic bone-breaking, gut-splashing gore we’re accustomed to in many tough-guy films the music video ostentatiously borrows from.
The black-and-white music video helmed by MESS spares us from most of that. Spoiler: The manner and spectacle of torment the victim goes through feels abundantly ritualistic but bereft of rhyme and reason—much as we don’t know why he ended up there in the first place. The added effects garishly tell, not suggest, that this is painful.
We’ll never know the whys, and motivation weighs the heaviest in what makes crime a crime. “Kiwotzukenah” shows us the act is clearly premeditated, but that’s about it. This is why maybe the act isn’t the point, but the message Ace Cool gives us when he breaks the fourth wall at the end, acknowledging our presence, as if to say, “You’re next.” — MG
Just Hush – “NOT Ü”
Manila-based audiovisual production Zoopraxi Studios’ penchant for the cinematic condenses into a singular point for the visuals on Just Hush’s “NOT Ü.” Light and dark merge into a coursing haze as a single subject, scantily-clad and faceless, crawls, saunters, and sulks in varying positions. It’s apt that Just Hush himself disappears into a disembodied voice in his own music video. The image slowly builds, overlapping with seemingly disparate imagery, until a certain point where the magic happens: fireworks, drops of water, and the now swirling subject further uncovers themself. It’s intentionally erotic, yes, but the visual leaves just enough for you to fill in the gaps.
The song carries the same trappings of Just Hush’s previous work: mood-setters that teeter between affection and disaffection. The track itself becomes a melodic tether in the music video, shaping a portrait of emotional despondence that is both gripping and bleak. You can’t help but look. — LC
MILLI – “Not Yet!”
Thailand’s 19-year-old rap superstar MILLI builds on her flair for the unconventional in her sitcom-themed music video for “Not Yet!.” Staying true to the ‘80s-themed elements of the dance-pop track, the video for “Not Yet!” spoofs typical sitcom elements popularized during the time: canned laughter, winding introductory sequences, the seemingly mundane suburbia setting.
Acting alongside Thai star Phiravich of Love by Chance fame playing “The Boyfriend,” the pair act out the expected monotony of domestic life as they cook together, watch TV together, and get ready for bed together. Interspersed with scenes of “The Boyfriend” sneaking a kiss and slowly advancing, MILLI firmly refuses as the boyfriend decides to stop pressuring her any further.
Despite its playful and campy tone, “Not Yet!” sends a clear message of asserting and respecting consent, even if your partner is a loved one. Ending with a bright pink visual of the text “No Means No,” MILLI doubles down on the importance of self-agency and respect for one’s boundaries cannot be underscored enough in any relationship. No means no. Always. — SG
Nafla – “run!” (ft. JUSTHIS) and “mobb tang”
The back-to-back video releases from Nafla’s 2021 album, natural high, are visually different yet thematically cohesive in their exploration and depiction of cultural transgressions (in South Korea at least—Nafla is Korean-American), openly flouting them.
Directed by Lee Hyesung of SUSHIVISUAL on location at Provoke Seoul [프로보크 서울], a local industrial-type entertainment complex stripped of any geographical cue, Nafla, JUSTHIS, and their posse of tattooed, bare-chested men (and one baby) might as well be in Koreatown in Los Angeles. “이제 귀찮아 여기저기들의 촬영은 [Now I’m tired of filming here and there] / 힙합에 정의 내리지 마 [Don’t define hip hop] / I ain’t part of ’em,” he raps, making it clear he’s uninterested in being boxed in.
Easily one of the standouts from the album, intro track “mobb tang” kicks off the party with its New York-rap indebted swagger, the title itself a nod to the city’s homegrown icons: Queens’ Mobb Deep and Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan (Nafla, on the other hand, is born in Pasadena, California).
At times docile but mostly animated, Nafla portrays himself undergoing what looks like an initiation ritual in search of an awakening, higher power, we don’t know. Whereas “run!”—despite the visual of a garbage bag-wrapped body hanging upside down (a HUGE caveat)—is more benign in its pacing, “mobb tang” is more manic and abrasive with its extreme religious/spiritual connotations—transformational in nature, both literal and metaphorical: as with the act of Nafla getting his Kool-Aid red colored-hair shaven clean.
The two music videos suggest how traditions and changes play a huge part in Nafla’s music (he signed with Ravi’s GROOVL1N label last year), ripe with jarring symbolism and deeper sense of self-awareness rarely seen in the increasingly commercialized Korean hip hop. — MG
Nina Utashiro – “ARIA”
In “ARIA,” Nina casts a specific vision that is realized only when the music and the visual are placed on equal footing. The insides of a tongue and mouth cause a sense of claustrophobia, while Jean Paul Gaultier designs embrace a contorted bodily form. Only Nina Utashiro can invoke these images without the blink of an eye. While the willfully provocative nature of her artistic career hasn’t faltered, the visual for Nina Utashiro’s “ARIA” carries a certain sense of precision that isn’t present in her past projects.
The trappings of what we’ve come to know about her in the last few years are evident in “ARIA”: the New York-Tokyo sensibility, the creative eye from her background as a magazine editor, the rebellious nature of hip hop and its twisted leanings as horrorcore. Everything comes together that goes past the spectacle, coming at you at a velocity that becomes more interesting and enjoyable past the initial shock. — LC
Prabh Deep – “Paapi”
First things first: the views are simply stunning in the visual for Prabh Deep’s “Paapi” (Sinful). Shot in the far-reaching parts of the Himalayas, the New Delhi rapper finds himself in solitude as he wanders vast landscapes in search of a golden medallion. Six minutes and a half in length, the visual stretches to create a sense of desolation after the initial splendor.
Distant shots among snow and barren trees are punctuated with closeups of Prabh Deep’s stoic demeanor, lost in thought as he paces among the vistas and cliffsides. The track’s inner dwellings of self-love and making peace with oneself become ever-present and resonant in these seemingly quiet moments. It’s one thing to embrace the spectacle and fill a music video with images of what could be your next desktop wallpaper, but to painstakingly put yourself in there and craft a narrative that requires physicality is no easy feat. — LC
Priya Ragu – “Kamali”
“Our daughters shouldn’t be raised like caged birds,” opens the music video for “Kamali” (Perfection) by Swiss-Tamil singer Priya Ragu. The track was named after the subject of a 2019 short film of the same name directed by Sasha Rainbow. At seven years old, Kamali—the only female skater in Mahabalipuram, India—forged her own path with the support of her single mother.
Featuring scenes of Kamali and her mother from the short film itself, the video celebrates the diversity of Tamil culture while bringing to light the affirming value of empowerment, especially for young girls who grow up being indoctrinated otherwise. In the video description, Priya cites that she relates to the story of Kamali, whose atypical way of life goes against traditional expectations for Tamil women, saying: “For a lot of us, these possibilities and dreams get blurry by the way the roles of men and women are dealt out. It is culturally rooted in ancient traditions where we are only good enough to become wives & mothers.”
Throughout the video, Priya presents a kaleidoscope of Tamil heritage that puts forward positive, joyful representations of Tamil people: from performing in a classroom, dressed in a school uniform to executing traditional dance moves while in vibrant modern-day fashion that illustrate how young girls today are capable of preserving their past while reinventing it according to what is asked of them. — SG
Rap Against Dictatorship – “งบประมาณ”
The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered as an era where populists in power—or, as Western political pundits would often describe it, “backsliding democracy”—brought life to a Shakespearean tempest: like the storm in the 15th-century play, the disease is not of nature’s doing, which made the incalculable loss, pain, and suffering even more unforgiving, unforgivable.
The scale of impact caused by the pandemic compounded by the “democratic deterioration” happening in Thailand at the same time has seen a groundswell of anti-government sentiment and youth-led protests. On the ground, Thai hip hop collective Rap Against Dictatorship became the face of counterculture—in tradition and interpretation—risking their freedom while fighting for it.
In describing the work of French West Indian political philosopher and radical Frantz Fanon (particularly his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth), Indian English scholar Homi K. Bhabha wrote, “A psycho-affective relation or response has the semblance of universality and timelessness because it involves the emotions, the imagination… it is only ever mobilized into social meaning and historical effect through an embodied and embedded action, an engagement with (or resistance to) a given reality, or a performance of agency in the present tense.” Embodied and embedded action.
Skanbombomb’s accompanying video makes it abundantly clear: “Just like that, the rest plummets,” referring to the diseased, deceased, and the endangered. Every cutaway and contrast is stark: the Powerful going backward (or backwards), the People marching forward. The shots in Bangkok show signs of struggle and resistance against the backdrop of symbols of power. We can’t know for sure if it was recorded before or after yet another demonstration—it feels like it’s always been there, embedded. “งบประมาณ” (Budget), in the lens of the unwitting, uninformed, and unchallenged feels reflexively incendiary. The thing is, truth often is. — MG
SickJam – “Hereko Herei”
The Nepalese hip hop scene could gain the same traction worldwide as its Asian neighbors if given the opportunity, as shown by Kathmandu-based group SickJam. The music video “Hereko Herei,” the second track from their 2021 EP SickJam EP 2020, sees Easi, Trix, and Dayjen playing different perspectives surrounding the political situation in their home country, observers in their own sense, but also reflections of real people playing witness (and participant) to what’s going on.
The visual, directed by Abhi Sampang Rai, carefully transmutes the track into a compelling visual narrative that doesn’t rely on camera tricks. The camera maintains a steady eye as you watch the scenes unfold; no frequent use of jump cuts, no luxe. Going against the usual visual trappings of hip hop, at least in the western space, wasn’t intentionally made to simply contradict. In this instance, it’s a viewing lens into what’s really there on the ground. — LC
sokodomo – “MM” ft. Jay Park
There is a certain maximalism infused within Korean hip hop artist sokodomo’s artistic leanings, found in the heavily distorted vocals and the electro-rock-infused, punchy melodies. The lyrics are explicit. Each moment of his tracks is packed with a punch.
The music video for “MM” plays with sokodomo’s artistic underpinnings with such polish that the result is a scrappy yet visually masterful music video. Packaged as a Netflix-esque thriller, the fantastical elements are shown in full view to match the song’s raw lyricism. The Korean rapper plays a salaryman who daydreams about revenge towards his uncaring boss. In one of the scenes, he dreams of a fictional character (played by H1GHR Music honcho Jay Park) exacting revenge on his boss as he watches in delight. “MM” embraces all of it, and that kind of dedication doesn’t go unseen or unrewarded. It’s pure escapism, portrayed in a way that might hit too close to some of us, as the ending might suggest. — LC
VannDa – “Time To Rise” ft. Master Kong Nay
Cambodian rap superstar VannDa brought Khmer music and culture to the global stage in his breakthrough music video “Time To Rise,” featuring Master Kong Nay, one of the country’s remaining great masters in chapei van deng, a traditional Khmer string instrument.
Tradition is thematically what the video honors and challenges. Going against the grain of formulaic hip hop music videos heavily influenced by opulent displays of wealth through fast cars and American streetwear, VannDa trades excess for the grandeur of traditional Khmer culture. Set in a museum displaying Khmer art, the rapper is shot in precise vignettes of poise and donned in traditional Khmer garb. Employing hip hop as a medium for breathing new life into Khmer traditions thought to be virtually lost and underrepresented to the younger generations of today, “Time To Rise” is a moving homage to Cambodian culture. — SG
YOUNGOHM – “บางกอก เลกาซี่”
The importance of YOUNGOHM’s “บางกอก เลกาซี่” (Bangkok Legacy) is as potent as its title suggests: dichotomic greatness—victorious and tragic. The former lies in YOUNGOHM’s role as one of the biggest names in Thai hip hop, conscientious of his platform and influence. He can choose to divorce himself from the risks and danger of being overtly political (or at least being seen as one), using his music to inform, if not awaken, a means of societal battle cry—the latter serving as a reflection of Bangkok’s bloody past repeating itself.
YOUNGOHM timed the release of the striking visual accompaniment of his 2020 debut album’s title track to the 45th anniversary of the “6 October 1976 massacre,” where royalist-nationalist forces sowed chaos at a student demonstration in Bangkok’s Thammasat University. They “beat, sexually assaulted, and lynched student protesters,” leaving 46 dead and 3,100 arrested.
The gutting realization—and urgent message—“บางกอก เลกาซี่” leaves to its viewers is how this brutal day is new not just to foreigners, but up until recently, to YOUNGOHM himself. “I would like my friends and sisters to try to research many important events that happened in our country. That [these] never existed in a textbook. When we know the past and learn from it, it will definitely benefit our present and future. Salute to all the brave heroes of the past and present. Prosperous democracy,” he wrote in Thai on Instagram on the same day the video premiered on YouTube, which has now been viewed more than 9 million times. He’s referring to the deliberate erasure or manipulation of history, a tool used by dictators since time immemorial, which can only be fought by keeping these memories and stories—this legacy—alive. — MG
Artist image header credit: VannDa/Press, Chanmina/screenshot from ちゃんみな [CHANMINA] YouTube, MILLI/screenshot from YUPP! YouTube, YOUNGOHM/screenshot from YOUNGOHM YouTube, Alisson Shore/screenshot from Alisson Shore YouTube, Balming Tiger/screenshot from Balming Tiger YouTube