Despite my passion for hip hop music, I have only managed to make it to three concerts in my life: Kendrick’s in 2017, ASAP Rocky in January, and a little known rap group known as the Higher Brothers last February. Kendrick was great, Rocky was insanely fun, but Higher Brothers were something special. They had a special energy that couldn’t be matched by other artists.
Higher Brothers consists of four members from Chengdu, China: Maswei, Psy-P, Melo, and DZ. Known as the face of the growing Chinese rap scene originating out of Chengdu, their 2017 album Black Cab and last years Journey to the West EP both received critical praise and international attention, particularly in the US. Seeing an opportunity to break into the US market, the Higher Brothers toured North America twice last year, hyping up their next studio album 5 Stars. Now that the album is here, it was more than worth the wait.
A strong suit of the Higher Brothers has always been their ability to switch between Chinese and English in their songs, creating unique opportunities to flow well over beats. It is impressive how many times they switch their flow up mid-verse and make it work flawlessly, something that keeps songs very interesting all the way through. Even when they do rap in Chinese, the flow and rhyming with interlaced English words make it fun and accessible.
Another way for the Higher Brothers to bypass the language barrier is to turn the production up to eleven. Almost every beat on the album is very much unique in the rap scene and complements the various members’ individual skills perfectly. My favorite song “Sunshine” has excellent drums and a killer melody that is not only fun to listen to, but works so well with Melo and Psy-P’s grittier rapping. “Zombie” uses an eerie sample of a woman screaming to set the tone of the song and “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Happy New Year in Chinese) utilizes an ancient Chinese sounding melody that one would expect from a rap group from Chengdu.
The Higher Brothers work as a single entity, but the individual members each have very specific skills that, when used correctly, can take a single song into many different, interesting directions. Psy-P and Melo really stood out to me as bringing their A-game on 5 Stars as they had very creative verses with both meaningful and fun lyrics, more so than on their previous work. One of the more memorable lines of the album comes from Melo on “Sunshine”, highlighting the rather annoying demand for more English in their songs with the humorous line, “Excuse me, can you speak English? Turn into can you speak Chinese, please b****.”
DZ and Maswei also have their moments across the album, but they are usually outshined by the others. DZ gets pretty crazy with his flow on songs like “Flexing so Hard” and as always does well with the slower, more melodic hooks. Maswei unfortunately is mostly relegated to the hook on most songs, something that will frustrate fans of his.
In addition to having great performances from most members, the features on 5 Stars are generally great. Soulja Boy’s verse on “Top” is subpar, but everyone else performs well, especially Denzel Curry and Ski Mask the Slump God on the god-tier “One Punch Man.” Having so many English features that are well known in the US will only serve to bring Higher Brothers further into the mainstream and hopefully leads to an increase in US streams on Spotify and Apple Music.
5 Stars is fourteen songs long, yet I wish it even longer as I enjoyed almost every single song on the project. It simply does so many things at a very high level and is one of the more fun and unique albums to come out from a genre that is becoming a bit more stale. They have an infectious energy and are impossible to dislike if you watch any of their interviews. Seeing the improvement on this album from Black Cab is encouraging and I can’t wait to hopefully see them again live this year. 5 Stars deserves nothing less than 5 stars from me.