The Higher Brothers’ 2017 album Black Cab is one of the most confident debuts in recent memory, rap or otherwise. On that project, the Brothers adapted the Migos’ formula over heavily trap-inspired instrumentals, as a foundation upon which to build their ethos — which plays on American stereotypes and satirizes Chinese culture — and to brazenly carve out their own lane in hip-hop. Since Black Cab, Higher Brothers have slipped into their role as poster-children for the 88rising media company that helped earn them popularity, heavily contributing to the 2018 compilation of 88rising-affiliated artists Head in the Clouds. They also dropped a couple EPs of their own, including Type 3 and, more notably, Journey to the West. Five Star continues the experimentations with new sounds found on those EPs — while also occasionally succumbing to SoundCloud-trap cliché. On “One Punch Man,” a clearly thrilled Denzel Curry basks in the delivery of his cosign — and then mostly uses the opportunity to theatrically scream-out his dissatisfaction for ‘being slept-on’ as an artist. The spot doesn’t nearly measure-up to those of others here, including the zany, multifaceted Famous Dex and Ski Mask the Slump God. “We Talkin’ Bout,” however, represents a different problem: The two most prominent Brothers, Ma Si Wei and DZ, tag-team their verses, but come up with typical “Versace”-biting hooks, whereas the psychotic croak of KOHN, a virtual unknown featured on the track, steals it.
That’s not to say our boys are slipping; elsewhere, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re in fact still challenging themselves. A great example of this is how the often sidelined-member Melo’s presence increases on Five Star. “Sunshine” is a particular left-turn for the group, with Melo exhausting different vocal approaches over a boom-bap beat. “Top” blurs distinctions between Ma Si Wei/DZ and Psy P/Melo in its vocal structure — and culminates in an auto-crooned Soulja Boy verse, sounding like grandpa got into the kid’s lean and went insane. “Do It Like Me” sees Psy P, Melo, and featured rapper JID all navigating the dialectical bombast and softness of their respective flows. “16 Hours” and “Need Me Now” are anthems propelled by the strength of the Ma Si Wei & DZ one-two punch, the latter sounding as if ripped from a Top 40 chart in the early aughts. And then there’s “Open It Up,” Higher Brothers’ most ambitious track to date, balancing swagger and melancholy and finding the group working their strengths: Melo’s variegated vocal, DZ’s desperate wail, Ma Si Wei’s ability to wend his vocal around acid guitar riffs. “I’m the teacher / now pay attention / class is in session,” instructs Ma Si Wei, just before firing off the refrain. Higher Brothers have only just begun to open that shit up.
Published as part of Foreign Correspondent | Issue 3.