As we enter the second quarter of the year, we’re cautiously returning to our pre-pandemic lives. There are no set parameters yet on how we can safely declare we’re out of this mess (as per health experts, this means transitioning to an endemic phase). Still, there are bursts of hope in the region: live music events (concerts and music festivals included) are happening (just see VannDa’s historic sold-out tour in Cambodia and Filipino group SB19’s comeback performance at the popular Wish 107.5 bus flocked by fans), and many countries are slowly opening up their borders for tourism.
As always, the music—ever unstoppable—just keeps on coming. The variety of our top releases this month, the best of the year so far, is palpably exciting: from the long-awaited return of Japanese fashion icon and DJ/producer NIGO to GOT7 members Yugyeom and Jackson Wang’s new solo hits, here are the rest of our top picks of the month.
Words by MC Galang and Sofia Guanzon
Tracy Gates – “SF to AC” ft. D4NTE & Dexter1ne&only
Up-and-coming Filipino rapper Tracy Gates proudly represents his hometown of San Fernando, Pampanga, in “SF to AC,” a standout cut from his debut record, SF U GOT 1NE (make sure to also check out “W” from the same album). Produced by HipHopDX Asia Editor’s Pick alum, shortone, “SF to AC” is a hypnotic number that evokes the atmospheric pull of “Don’t”-era Bryson Tiller. With assists from fellow rappers D4NTE and Dexter1ne&only, Tracy Gates’ “SF to AC” is a strong debut from the rookie MC. — MG
AINN – “ALMOST PERFECT”
“Almost Perfect,” though not exactly reinventing the genre, carries a self-assured finesse and charm that’s hard to dismiss. In their new artist roster reveal last year, Thai label YUPP! describes their South Korean signee (but born and raised in Thailand), AINN, as a “Thai at heart who sings and raps with a unique style and accent.” For the most part, it’s hard to pick up on any nuances of accent, especially from a foreign audience, and the R&B singer does reasonably well as the latest participant in the growing K-R&B genre. His YUPP! Debut, “ALMOST PERFECT,” is a welcome addition to the label’s more hip hop-heavy repertoire. — MG
Nasty – Purple Heart
Nepali hip hop veteran Nasty’s latest studio album, Purple Heart, dovetails his previous releases in a manner that’s not separate from his whole body of work but feels abundantly as a continuation—like an ongoing journey with no pre-set destination.
For Nasty and Eye Crown (his label), there is no such thing as throwaways. They manage to repurpose older, original beats or splice samples together. The bars serve the moments, not the other way around. He said as much in an old interview with The Nepali Man (“I adapt to the beat and work according to that.”) In one of the album’s best cuts, “Welcome 2 U5,” Nasty declares Purple Heart as the “album of the year,” against a pitched-up vintage gospel-sounding vocal sample. It’s a retelling of his dreams for Nepali hip hop done through a compellingly familiar style. — MG
Karencici – 99% Angel
Chinese-American Karencici took a well-deserved break from touring with the supergroup PANTHEPACK with the release of her sophomore record, 99% Angel, the follow-up to 2018’s SHA YAN.
On her new album, Karencici shows off a chic sheen in her collection of house-inflected dance-pop and R&B tracks, flexing her vocal strengths in two mellow numbers, including the closing track, “Sorry Not Sorry.”
“Greedy & Confident,” her latest single from the album, weaponizes the traits women are often faulted with when we assert our agency, desires, and dreams. In the liner notes for the music video, Karencici shared its purpose was to “empower women. To show confidence in everything you do and stand for what you believe in.” Brava. — MG
Stream the album via Spotify here
NIGO – I Know NIGO!
The arrival of NIGO’s latest record last month, his first studio album in nearly two decades, came in full swing, with guest verses from long-time collaborator Pharrell, Tyler, The Creator, Kid Cudi, Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Rocky, Pusha T, Clipse, Gunna, A$AP Ferg, his fellow members from Teriyaki Boyz, and the late Pop Smoke (forever alive as a Brooklyn drill icon in “Remember”).
A true collaborator and purveyor of timeless taste, the Japanese fashion legend, and DJ-producer delivers an equally essential hip hop project in I Know NIGO! — MC
Stream the album via Spotify here
VannDa – “Bok Kalo”
We’ve long heralded Cambodia’s VannDa as a hip hop superstar since the astonishing success of his breakthrough 2020 hit “Time To Rise,” but in “Bok Kalo,” we see the artist fully committing to the excess of stardom for the first time. And it suits him.
“Bok Kalo” is underscored by heavy bass lines, distorted electronic-infused sounds, and drill and trap influences. The track is addicting, dripping with ego and the restless energy of a young artist brimming with explosive energy—it’s also VannDa stepping into a new chapter of his life, as the single marks the upcoming release of his highly anticipated forthcoming album $KULL 2 and his first sold-out nationwide tour.
The accompanying video is a dizzying phantasmagoria of neon lights, bringing to life the track’s lavishness while reinventing VannDa’s visual repertoire. – SG
keshi – GABRIEL
Vietnamese-American singer keshi’s debut album is a classic-in-the-making, capturing the zeitgeist of the online musical landscape. As a self-taught artist who first rose to fame on SoundCloud, he’s one of many bedroom producers whose nebulous sound is molded by influences from trap, R&B, and textural production that veers on lo-fi beats.
In GABRIEL, he elevates this familiar sound to reintroduce himself on his own terms. In some ways, his record feels as if the Greek hero Orpheus were given a recording studio, with his haunting vocals immersing you into his inner world. Interspersed with samples of his father’s voice, flutes, layered vocals that allow his voice to shine, confessionals about lust, and more – GABRIEL is a confident debut that yields keshi’s artistry to generations of insatiable listeners who are indeed left wanting more. – SG
Stream the album on Spotify here
Jackson Wang – “Blow”
Jackson Wang has remained a fixture in the Asian entertainment history for the past few years, best known as the main rapper and mood-maker of South Korean boy group GOT7 and now building his own empire as a host, entrepreneur, label owner of Team Wang, and solo artist in his own right.
His latest English-language single, “Blow,” feels like a breath of fresh air in Wang’s illustrious career. Veering away from usual rap-and-sing verses, “Blow” allows his versatility to take center stage, paired with a cinematic visual with a corset-clad Wang leading what seems to be a seductive vampire cult. Opulent and daring, it’s Jackson Wang reborn, or maybe at his best. – SG
Yugyeom – “Take You Down” ft. Coogie
South Korean singer, rapper, and GOT7 member Yugyeom’s solo debut, Point of View: U made it to HipHopDX Asia’s20 Best Albums of 2021 list last year, where we wrote: “Point of View: U doesn’t necessarily defy rules but its willingness to make them work for Yugyeom, the K-pop idol, actually inadvertently allows us a chance to appreciate him just as Yugyeom.” Needless to say, the debut left us eager for Yugyeom’s upcoming releases as a solo artist.
In his highly anticipated return, “Take You Down,” (featuring AOMG labelmate Coogie), Yugyeom shows off his vulnerable sensibilities as he laments a relationship exhausted of its limits, balanced out by Coogie’s more easygoing presence. While it’s still too early in the year to foresee what else he has in store, we have high hopes as always for Yugyeom’s future releases. – SG
SACAR aka Lil Buddha – “King of NEPHOP 2” ft. Ninja, Duke, CJ
In 2019, SACAR aka Lil Buddha and Uniq Poet joined forces and disrupted Nepali hip hop with their hit “King of NEPHOP.” Both artists also made it on our list of 10 Nepali Rappers To Check Out Right Now, alongside other great rappers whose work and legacy have impacted the industry.
SACAR aka Lil Buddha crowns his discography thus far “King of NEPHOP 2,” off his latest album Ecstasy In The Palace, featuring fellow rappers Ninja, Duke, and CJ. “I’m high up in the clouds lookin’ down at Everest,” CJ performs with reference to the tallest mountain in the world, which borders Nepal and representative of the kind of unapologetic swagger of being on top.
If you’re looking for a new track to make you feel like a royal, look no further than “King of NEPHOP 2,” where every rapper delivers their own equally commanding verses that are sure to get you fired up. – SG
Header image: Artist photos courtesy of VannDa, Nasty, Yugyeom, Jackson Wang, and keshi via Instagram and YouTube