Appreciation for aesthetic structures within oriental scripts often exist without a necessary desire to uncover the significance of the characters at hand. The manner in which logograms embody unusual, subjective references to meanings that lie behind them are of little help to those unversed in the intricacies of Chinese writing systems, though the words themselves might make for intriguing patterns. The reason for this mostly lies in the striking composition of each grapheme, the anomalous twists and turns, the remarkable frameworks and the curious qualities of the grammar that builds syntax. This applies unless one is familiar with languages that incorporate such systems, in which case a natural ability ensues to implement them. But for those of us unfamiliar with these writing systems, this fascination still exists, despite it being arguably easier to learn, use, and understand these symbols than it ever has been in the past.
Recent examples of such tenacious fascination are exemplified as an almost arbitrary component of vaporwave, which continues to provoke inquisitiveness and discussion. Vaporwave artists characteristically utilize kanji penmanship as a means of incorporating what some may argue to be an essential grade of vivacity in a sub-genre that shamelessly inscribes the use of found audio and corporate video soundtracks at its core. The oriental calligraphy provides a necessary degree of edginess, despite the fact that turning English, Cyrillic, or Arabic letters into kanji is extremely easy to achieve. This is a completely discriminatory viewpoint, based on the assumption that the majority of those people interested belong to (sub)cultures that do not primarily use Chinese writing systems, which is why the appeal emerges; kanji characters ultimately concretize combinations of “exotic” and “futuristic” charm, which is what makes them so perfectly fitting in the genres that flaunt them for aesthetic purposes
When Triad God released his NXB mixtape on SoundCloud earlier this year, a lot of these attributes mutated; Cantonese and English were brought together over a bed of dreamy, fashionable electronic music that couldn’t be more suitable for the Hippos In Tanks roster. Those unfamiliar with the language were able to immerse themselves in the vocal stylings of Vinh Ngan as he rapped over some wonderfully imaginative cityscape cuts that were influenced by his supposed upbringing in South East London via Hong Kong and Vietnam. There existed in those 25 minutes a humble and creative collection of tunes that built distinctive bridges across otherwise intangible exponents of abstract orthography and trendy underground melodic flavorings. Although the occasional slip-ups of “old school” and “rap/web star” in a distinctive London accent made for slightly uncomfortable insights, most of what was on offer remained cloaked inside an artistic force field of nonchalant darkwave that so hypnotically embellished Triad God’s vocal flow.
The mixtape is referred to in the past tense, because it no longer exists for streaming or download — and fair play to Hippos In Tanks for picking it up, because there is not another free record throughout the Bandcamp spectrum that could fit more aptly into the label’s direction. Hippos is by no means a mammoth corporate entity, but it’s home to some of the trendier, in vogue, underground electronic musicians of the moment. What they have achieved in this case provides Triad God with exposure, which inevitably provides an increase in audience volume and a simultaneous broadening of its demographic. Questions concerning this particular release should therefore be asked with regards to the comprehension of lyrical persuasions versus aesthetic appreciation of the music: Should this album be held in a regard different to that of any other non-English language recording just because of its specific style and the nature of the label?
It would appear callous to make sweeping assumptions about listener demographics here, and so the lyrical content of the release certainly needs to be addressed, for this is an album draped in vulgarity. Flora Yin-Wong discussed this to some extent for Dazed Digital, and it was also pointed out by Mr P when “Remand” was made available to stream, but the bulk of tracks here are so littered with obscenity that those sweeping tones become polluted by puerile cussing. “Pok” (仆) and “Lo Mor” (老母) are words that literally mean “to fall down” and “old mother,” respectively, but are also regarded as vile idioms. Each track is composed entirely of expletives, which creates an immediate distinction between listeners who understand the lyrics and those who do not.
However, the level of vulgarity is a singular dimension within the music at stake, and as unidentifiable chatter, words reign terrific alongside gritty clicks and rugged bass lines. The use of intonation also carries weight here through providing a splendid example of contrast; rhymes sound almost timid on “Pok,” as though the speaker is divulging statements of regret and subtle bitterness, which is a complete contradiction in sooth. Obscenity aside, the more compelling lyrical angles come on “Luung,” which charges flow from Guangdong folk tales about unrequited love lost on a prostitute against a catchphrase from 小寶與康熙, a TV drama that must have been popular when Vinh was growing up, for his use of it here is akin to teenage citations of “Who loves ya, baby?” or “Is it cuz I is black?” The phrase repeated here is “雖則我唔… 強勁嘅臂彎,” which translates as “Though I’m not a handsome guy, I have a generous heart and strong arms,” and it encapsulates one of several nostalgic leitmotif’s that Vinh introduces on NXB. In this instance, it is spliced with a line from a Qing-era poem — “涼風有信，秋月無邊，虧我思嬌情緒，好比度日如年” — “Light breeze, the moon in autumn, the thoughts for my gal makes a day seem like a year long” — a continuation of sentimental themes, sure, but also an example of 無厘頭, a genre of nonsensical comedy based on the splicing together of recognized phrases and sentence structures placed out of context. This is one in a number of angles Vinh incorporates with what has seemingly been most reported in the press; for this is also an album about growing up, camaraderie, and integration.
On a demographic hunch, the beats and compositions that suspend thematic stratagems here are far more likely to be the central cause of alluring embrace than lyrical matter. NXB is awash with some tremendously innovative synth drives and percussion interplay, courtesy of a collaboration with Palmistry, that’s not worlds apart from some of labelmate James Ferraro’s BEBETUNE$; the three additions to the mixtape for Hippos’ reissue all point in a similar direction. The luscious key processing on “Po” shimmies somewhere between a steady hip-hop beat and Vinh’s echoing mumble, with the periodic “yeah” thrown in for good measure, which is curious in that it could be understood as either a rude-boy swipe or a Cantonese collocation — “Po Yeah” is equal to “Fuck You” (as in the infinitive phrase). Elsewhere, “Remand” embraces fleeting house jams with looped vocal samples that originally appeared on Triad God’s Aym G 4 Life EP in 2011. These rhythms are innovative and shady, an abrasive turn in combining the “otherness” of Chinese calligraphy and the audio personifications of the digital hyperreal, a fresh and insightful take on both post lo-fi and Cantonese hip-hop that encourages a thoughtful response to questions concerning audience demographics.
From the perspective of a listener unaccustomed to the lingo but with a keen interest in the rosters of labels such as Hippos In Tanks, UNO NYC, etc., NXB is a gratifying release. Although the reissue does not provide an abundance of new material, it maintains an essential fusion of gu zheng instrumentation with underground pop while gracefully colliding those models with Asian hip-hop and East London taunt. Acknowledging lyrical substance, however, lifts the cryptic lid in uncovering something a little more abstract; those blissful and imaginative beats have the same affect, but are accompanied by a confused and distinct nostalgia that is surely intended to be mystical for the lion’s share of listeners. Cantonese is not used here as an aesthetic crutch for assisting the anonymous nature of the musician; language is integral to the sonic structure. However, in the case of NXB, the artist is only too aware of the appeal this adheres to: “No one knows/ Now you know/ Now you know it all” Vinh spits on “Bland Day Tumm My Tung Joe Ter Ruler” before repeating the very same line again on “Bruce Lee Funeral,” just to make sure that message sinks in.