The Japanese rap community finds itself in a strange place in 2019. It remains stacked in terms of artistic variety, with a mix of established acts within the scene and buzzed-about names trying to jump up a level. Who, exactly though, could leap up and really leave an imprint extending beyond the rap community? A few recent releases highlight a few paths forward, and some of the more intriguing names to watch out for.
Any list looking at who might be “next” to really inroads to a larger audience should start off with Tohji. Tohji has already caught plenty of looks thanks to energy and playfulness present even on early songs centered on Godzilla. He’s only gotten better on both fronts over the last couple of years, becoming one of the must-see acts in Japan’s blooming SoundCloud-inspired rap community while retaining a tendency to get silly. He’s even better when teamed up with fellow rapper gummy boy, with the pair working under the name Mall Boyz. They recently hooked up again to rap over a track made by DJ CHARI. Watch the video for “aero” below.
The backdrop provided to them by DJ CHARI isn’t built for a rave-up, but the pair turn it into just that even while moving in time with the beat. Aided by some welcome splashes of Auto-tune, they control the emotional flow of the song all through their delivery, something not many of the younger artists in this community have mastered yet (usually opting for a barrage of hollering meant to pump up the crowd). It also helps that they look incredible in the accompanying video, dressing up as fallen angels or looking wistful against a handful of surreal backdrops.
Perhaps Taeyoung Boy points towards the best path forward for Japanese hip-hop to go, though. On his latest song “Speed,” the fledgling artist takes cues from American rap and refracts it through his mindset. Whereas Tohji and gummy boy mutate familiar forms into something all their own, Taeyoung Boy does a good job of recreating it in Japanese. It’s the road someone could take to try to connect with a global artistic movement quickly, and “Speed” does a solid job tapping into popular sonic trends without being too much of a copy. Watch the video below.
Perhaps the most intriguing way Japanese rap could migrate comes via Gokou Kuyt. Another SoundCloud-born creator, they aren’t as big on getting people flipping out as looking inward. This style represents a whole other side of the burgeoning scene, one built on more melancholy raps and beats on the sparser (and sometimes rock-influenced) side. Newest number “Amethyst Drive” highlights this corner well, as Kuyt delivers laid-back vocals over a rumbling synth-accented beat featuring some vocoder streaks and a metallic edge. The influence is clear — Drake — but Kuyt turns this brand of melancholy into something that works for them, and offers a nice alternative to all the pumped-up stuff out there. Listen below.