It’s a strange feeling to head into 2022 with a pandemic still looming largely—despite promising, though sputtered, developments around the globe, at least on this front. A recurring theme in our first batch of standout hip hop and R&B releases for this year so far is hope, for the most part; that which remains, empowers, and endures.
Here are our picks for best Asian hip hop and R&B music of 2022 as of March.
Words by MC Galang and Sofia Guanzon
ABANGSAPAU, Charlie Lim – “Boyhood”
Grief comes in the form of reckoning in ABANGSAPAU and Charlie Lim’s “Boyhood”—a poignant picture of regret, loss, and missed opportunities. The song follows the Singaporean rap artist as he confronts the guilt he internalized in his youth, and how it inevitably and profoundly affected his relationships following the death of his father, especially with his mother and himself.
Written with crushing tenderness and vivid contemplation, “Boyhood” is a coming-of-age song about self-discovery brought upon by tragic circumstances as much as, if not more than, the choices we make. “If I’d lost my way / Would you still take me in? / Just take a chance for a change,” singer-songwriter Lim sings beautifully. ABANGSAPAU’s “Boyhood” offers no promises, no answers, but there is comfort, even peace, in shared grief. — MG
Mary Sue – KISSES OF LIFE
KISSES OF LIFE, Singapore-based hip hop artist Mary Sue’s (stylized as mary sue) Album of the Year contender, registers grief as intractable. While his is far from dormant, following the death of his grandfather dovetailed with the news of MF DOOM’s unexpected passing, Sue understands that grief and music aren’t far apart in terms of expression, one tethered to each other—unsullied.
While the album addresses death and dying, its orchestrations are immensely alive, the way Mary Sue’s band of producers repurpose old soul records, extending a bygone era in more ways than one. Mary Sue, much like his fallen hero DOOM, pours through these deconstructed arrangements achingly, at times, breathless.
I think there’s no transcending grief; it’s indelible in nature, devoid of distance and limits. We live with it, always, sometimes in silent company; other times, consuming, obstructive; at worst—destructive. KISSES OF LIFE offers no countenance to it. It confronts it the only way how: through it. — MG
Shurkn Pap – CALL ME MR. DRIVE 2
Hometown pride is an inextricable topic among rappers—celebratory, self-affirming, and endlessly nurturing. Whereas his contemporaries have sought greener pastures in bigger cities like Tokyo, Shurkn Pap planted himself firmly in his home of Himeji, a sprawling, picturesque city west of Japan’s capital. “Riding my hood / I never change,” he raps matter-of-factly in “My Hood,” the lead single off his latest record, CALL ME MR. DRIVE 2, a soulful contrast to its trap-heavy predecessor from 2020.
While Shurkn Pap’s discography is unsurprisingly smattered with loving and unflinching devotion to Himeji, CALL ME MR. DRIVE 2 is also anchored by the Japanese rapper’s enthusiasm for cars and getting around the city. Covering all his bases, Shurkn Pap also places CALL ME MR. DRIVE 2 in ‘90s West Coast: rife with G-funk wobbles popularized by Death Row-era Dr. Dre, the suave and smoothness of California-born and bred rappers, his voice clear, confident, and nonchalant.
The record allows us to experience a place unlike those whose reputation often precedes them: whether it’s the year-round wet climate (“Rainy”), the unimposing old-city charm (with a centuries-old UNESCO heritage site overlooking all of Himeji), and its welcoming laidback quality, Shurkn Pap shows us around—no flash, no bombast—proudly, at home. — MG
Stream the album in full via Spotify
WILYWNKA – “Don’t Forget” ft. ISSUGI
The closing track to WILYWNKA’s newly released album, Not for Radio, was produced by tofubeats, who, as it happens, I discovered in SoundCloud years ago. His style—with its joyful bursts of whimsical synths and his recognizable brand of city pop-funk—is a calling card of sorts, at least to me, among a handful of Japanese (or Japanese-born) DJs/producers who perfected the slightly more polished jazz-R&B-house-hip hop hybrid (see also: starRo).
Thematically, “Don’t Forget” is a first-person diaristic account of the Japanese rapper, whose career began in his teens, when he competed four times in a popular variety show for high school-age aspiring battle rappers. He went on to join another rap competition show (and placed second), secure a major label deal, and release music as 1/3 of Hentai Shinshi Club (Hentai Gentlemen’s Club) in addition to his solo projects. Not for Radio is, by and large, a homecoming. WILYWNKA’s choice to end his latest album with “Don’t Forget” is not only an homage to his humble beginnings, but as testament to Japan’s deep ties to the golden age of hip hop: its reverence to the DJ-MC relationship, storytelling, and everyman appeal. — MG
Warren Hue – “INTERNET BOY”
Internet-found fame is, by design, democratized and more feasible than ever. Virality is just one of those things that qualify as criteria, whether we like it or not. The internet is both a vast and insular space, depending on which corner you like to stay in it, or as with many cases, how you can wield it to your benefit.
Indonesian artist Warren Hue’s discography has, for the most part, not deviated from his SoundCloud days: an abundant mix of lo-fi and melodic rap. This is why “INTERNET BOY,” his sleek, UK garage-inspired number at the beginning of the year, became an instant addition to this list.
The track is a pop culture-referencing club joint that plumbs into exactly what its title claims and revels in it (“Hello, hello / I’m a internet boy / GarageBand star… Made all this money from the internet, boy / Now I do it nonstop, I’m a internet boy”). Its unperturbed, confident chorus may be accompanied by a slosh of Jabberwocky one-liners (he’s young, I understand, and have heard worse), but who cares, in the end? It’s a cheeky, fun song that knows its pulse and more importantly, a sense of self. Bravo. — MG
Jianbo – “Mongkok Madness” ft. Henry Wu
British rapper Jianbo’s “Mongkok Madness” is a decadent deep house-induced offering that stitches together his Chinese-Vietnamese heritage with superfluous sounds and underground club-ready bounce. What we have is an ambient, transportive track that points to how in 2022, good music needs no further introduction. It’s just good. – SG
1300 – ”Oldboy”
South Korean-Australian collective 1300 pay homage to the classic 2003 South Korean thriller-action film Oldboy in their latest single of the same name. The collective stays true to their frenetic 808 basslines and electronica-infused sound that goes against the grain of carefully calculated visuals accompanying the single. “Oldboy” strikes a balance between the more fearless, uncontrolled approach to their music that, in turn, makes the audience feel just as on edge while being immersed in the listening experience. – SG
VannDa – “Khmer Blood”
For the few Southeast Asians who have managed to cross over to global superstardom, VannDa still stands a cut above the rest. Cambodian musician VannDa is emblematic of the kind of independent, self-taught young artist in the cusp of superstardom—viral and raw. In his second track of the year, “Khmer Blood” (released on his birthday), he showcases cinematic craftsmanship and dissolves into the tableaus of the Cambodian countryside, interspersed with portraits of his countrymen—allowing his music to act as a canvas for a new generation of Cambodians still searching for home today. – SG
Toro y Moi – “Postman”
Rosaries, flying jeepneys, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Like most diasporic Asian communities in the United States, Filipino-Americans have cultivated a profound sense of homeland across the country, including sprawling metropolis of San Francisco. For Toro y Moi, he substantiates these spatial elements in the visual for the funk-laced latest single “Postman,” off his upcoming album MAHAL (Love).
Underscored by sparse percussion and steady rhythm of tambourines and bass lines—Chaz Bear endearing and confusingly waits for correspondence. The artist breezes through the single (and the video), asking over and over if the titular postman has any mail for him today. For any Filipino, we’re familiar with the long wait of a securely packaged balikbayan box filled with the tastes and smells of home (wherever that may be) as material stand-ins for Pinoy love. – SG
Awich – “Queendom”
Okinawan rapper Awich gets daringly vulnerable in Chaki Zulu-produced “Queendom,” the title track of her new album. While vulnerability does not serve as a prerequisite for the quality of work produced by an artist, the way by which she bares herself as a single mother, partner, and whole human being entrenched in the struggle to love oneself amidst the forces that would rather have us submit to the circumstances that slowly eat us away: grief, loss, and failure. “Queendom” is a moving testament to female power and more especially, an exaltation of life for Awich, who teaches us that the mantra is more than a destination, but a state of mind. – SG
- Al James – “PSG”
- Amazumi – Riot EP
- Mike Kosa – “Hangarin” ft. Gat Putch
- Omar Baliw – “KALMADO PART 4” ft. RHYNE
- Rap Against Dictatorship – “บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน (Homeland)”
- SACAR a.k.a. Lil Buddha – “Dangerous Girl”
- shortone – “akin ka”
- SHNTI – “Fuck It (I’m In Love Again)”
- Way Ched – “Spin The Block” ft. Paul Blanco, 365LIT, LIL GIMCHI
Header image: Artist photos courtesy of VannDa, Toro Y Moi, Awich, Warren Hue, and Mary Sue via Instagram and Bandcamp