Feature photo courtesy of @brianimanuel
Rich Brian’s The Sailor Tour in Amsterdam
Let me lay all my cards out on the table: I am not the biggest fan of Rich Brian (“Brian Imanuel”). When the tickets went on sale in late September, I went back and forth, contemplating whether or not if I should go.
Let me explain by turning back the clock a little to 2017. I loved the idea of Imanuel: everything from his Indonesian underdog come-up to his lyrical and visual artistry. Imanuel has garnered a cult-like following from the beginning of his career. Many of us know him through his viral debut single, Dat $tick, a phenomenon that went beyond English-speaking countries. His debut project, Amen, won high praise from everyone - including myself. It was refreshing to hear Imanuel speak openly about his emotions and the pressure to be who everyone wants him to be.
However, later on, following the commercial success of Amen, all of the appealing things that drew me to Imanuel and his music, dissolved. His later release, The Sailor, stepped up his flow and production value, yet took a backseat in versatility and lyrical depth-- something Imanuel’s personal charisma was unable to atone for. Instead of playing up the underdog narrative that was so compelling to me, his lyrics shifted towards a heavy sexual undertone, if not explicitly.
(Maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t buy the meet and greet package.)
Still, I felt like going to a Rich Brian show would be an experience beyond music. His back story and come-up are more than impressive. His journey reminds me of Eddie Huang’s self-discovery through heritage and hip-hop, and Imanuel’s success represents more than commercial success but instead constructs a compelling narrative of determination and pursuit.
My friend and I got there a little before the doors opened at 7:30 PM; from our experiences from Joji’s show, we knew the venue was gonna be swarmed by the entire Asian community in the Netherlands. We were correct: the lines wrapped around the central Leidseplein square, and the crowd huddled in the pouring rain, a chattering mosaic of Korean, Tagalog, Mandarin, and more huddling up in the pouring rain.
The line moved quickly, and by the time we made it into the venue and had checked in our coats, we’d managed to bump into every single Asian we knew in Amsterdam.
With August08 from 88rising as the opening act, we were off to a good start. His powerful vocals and strong stage presence set the tone for the night. Despite my awkward encounter with him later on at the venue (I am painfully unaware of my surroundings), I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, especially Calculator and Arizona, since one might not expect these tracks appearing in an opening set due to their sentimental nature, but it served as a great build-up for the rest of the set.
Then it was time for Rich Brian. The crowd cheered on as Imanuel appeared on stage in a lilac velvet jumpsuit. He performed older tracks such as Dat $tick and Who That Be. Both served as the soundtrack to many of my senior year sleepovers; we also sampled the well-structured tracks such as Glow Like Dat and History that really put him on the map, as well as newer tracks such as Yellow and Kids, which served as Imanuel’s way of asserting his own maturity. He knew how to hype the crowd up and have them act like there were ants in their pants, restless and eager for the next song. He spoke candidly on his inspirations and thoughts behind each song, incorporating each and every one of the crowd members into the song by looping them into the creative process.
The crowd was filled with mostly Asian people who were older than Imanuel, with a majority being male. Even though Imanuel is younger, it felt like the audience saw him as the rebellious older brother fighting against the status quo and speaking up against the things they were too scared to speak upon themselves. Imanuel’s boast of sexual experience became their way of sexual reclamation. Asian males are often emasculated in popular media - acknowledgment as 'worthy' love interests only came in recent years, and Imanuel’s lyrics are his own way of flaunting and recognizing that he is sexually desirable to women.
I will admit that I came in with lowered expectations. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and the atmosphere created by the crowd was a significant part of it. Even though I am not the biggest fan of Imanuel, I still can’t help but be infatuated with the magic of his show. The happiness of his audience is contagious and draws you in to be a part of it. Imanuel’s showmanship is to be applauded, and he speaks of his creative process and carries himself with a stream of self-awareness that I couldn’t have accessed just from streaming his music or following him on social media.
Was this Imanuel’s redemption in my eyes? Absolutely.
I still find his music from his latest The Sailor-era to be lackluster, unimaginative, and filled with out-of-place-juxtapositions. This is something I’ve seen echoed amongst Pitchfork reviews and Reddit forums; despite maturing musically, his lyrics always take me straight out of the experience.
Knowing Imanuel is just three months younger than me, and just at the start of his career, he has more space and resources to grow than most people his age. If Imanuel continues to keep up with his production value and pushes his lyricism to grow alongside him and evolve accordingly to his life lessons, I am excited to see the heights Imanuel will achieve.