“Rich Chigga isn’t me anymore,” says Brian Imanuel, the Indonesian rapper who, after rising through the viral ranks with the controversial moniker, changed his name to Rich Brian in January, ahead of the Feb. 2 release of his debut album, Amen.
“Being in the United States made me realize that I wanted to [make the] change,” says the 18-year-old, who moved from Jakarta to Los Angeles last July. “I wanted to go a certain way with my music, a certain direction. It just felt right.”
Brian’s original stage name was a better fit for his early, more troll-like incarnation. His internet hit “Dat $tick,” which peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart in 2016, was criticized for what some saw as a mockery of hip-hop culture. In its video (at 84 million YouTube views and counting), he is flanked by gun-toting associates while -pouring liquor on the ground and wearing a fanny pack — and, most controversially, casually dropping the N-word.
But the track struck a chord with those impressed by his ratatat flow and dizzying lyricism, including established rappers like Cam’Ron and Ghostface Killah (Ghostface later appeared on the “Dat $tick” remix). And Brian — who started off as something of a social media star, with a comic Vine and Twitter persona — soon came to take the responsibility of representing for hip-hop more seriously. “It’s super tight seeing people be like, ‘You make this seem possible,’” he says. “It’s not even just Asian people, but teens and kids my age that are homeschooled.” (Brian was homeschooled himself, in Jakarta.)
Backed by an Asian management company, 88rising, that’s home to Keith Ape, and Higher Brothers, it’s hard not to see Brian as a representative for Asian rappers angling for the mainstream. But he’d rather not have his ethnicity as the focus and is quick to denounce anyone who might pigeonhole him. “I don’t want to be boxed in or looked at a certain way, as in, ‘Yo, he’s an Asian rapper,’” he says. “It’s pretty hard as an Asian rapper to not be put in a box. I do my best to avoid that.”
With his sonorous voice, clever rhymes and booming beats — he produced almost every track on Amen, which features Offset and 88rising’s Joji — Brian’s carving out his place in hip-hop, but he still insists on finding his own way. “For songs to be big, I don’t think there’s a certain formula to it,” he says. “I’m finding new ways and new songs to make things catchy. I’m just trying to be more versatile.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.