The Indonesian rapper’s latest full-length was influenced by his hometown, his relationship with his dad, and a break-up
Rich Brian’s new album, The Sailor, reflects the rapper’s coming-of-age story. In 2016, when he was just 17 years old, Brian Immanuel left his hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia for Los Angeles. He’d had a breakout hit with his somewhat controversial viral single “Dat $tick”, and was ready to pursue a full-time career in music. Soon, he was working with artists like 21 Savage, Offset, and Playboi Carti, and selling out shows across the US, Europe, and Asia. With his debut album, 2018’s Amen, he was able to shed off any past preconceptions people may have had about his music and prove he was more than a viral curiosity or a meme – all while growing up both as an artist and as a young man in front of the world on social media.
The Sailor is about Rich Brian’s growth during that time. Recorded between New York, Los Angeles, and Jakarta, the album is somewhat of a shift from the more hyped-up, trappy music Brian was releasing as recently as just last year. It’s a more melodic, musically expressive album than Amen, with light guitars and dusty boom-bap beats sitting alongside party bangers. With these relatively unexpected reference points, we asked Rich Brian about some of the things that led to this creative evolution. Here are six things that inspired The Sailor.
Rich Brian: I was born in Indonesia and grew up there. It gave me such a unique perspective on life. I had such a big dream of ‘making it’, whether that was in music or short films, and I remember how determined I was and how motivated I was before I came to America. I still go back every six months or so, because my whole family’s still there, and when I’m there, I actually make some of the best music that I ever make. I don’t make music with anybody else, I just sit in my room and make beats on my laptop and write. That’s how I started doing it, so when I go back, I feel that same kind of determination again. There’s a song called “Kids” where I thought I’d talk about where I’m from and my whole journey.
In LA, it’s a different kind of atmosphere. I work with other people more, I’m around more people that make music, I’m in that bubble where everything is happening. I feel like if I’d been born in America, I wouldn’t be as motivated.
Rich Brian: My dad has inspired me since I was a kid. I’m the youngest kid in my family and I have three older siblings, and I remember there’d be times where my dad would give my sister advice, or my brother advice, and I would really listen to everything he said. I would live by that advice. He’s the most positive person that I know. I’ve seen him go through shit and deal with it with such a positive attitude. He knows how to smile at problems and not be overwhelmed by them. I don’t think there’s a certain song on the album about my dad, but a lot of it shines through subtly. It’s always going to be there, because that’s who I am as a person.
He actually put me on to quite a lot of music, back in the day. I used to play the drums – when I was five, he taught me how to play. He put me onto Phil Collins and Dream Theater, and that was where I got my start in music.
Rich Brian: I used to be on the internet literally every day. I discovered a lot of music through YouTube. They’d be whole albums (uploaded as a single track), and that way, I’d be forced to listen to the whole thing instead of being able to skip stuff. I used to put on a Chance the Rapper album, or a Joey Badass album, and I remember waking up every morning and looking forward to what I was gonna play that day. I haven’t experienced that with any recent albums. Everybody’s attention spans are getting shorter, so artists reverse engineer the way they make albums to fit what people like. A lot of it feels like a folder of songs with three or four hits in it. I really wanted to make sure that with this album, it would be listenable from front to back. I wanted them to not skip it.
How did I do that? Lyrically, putting in interesting skits and sounds, and arranging the tracklist in a way like: “The first song’s gonna be super hard, the next track will be more fun and bright, the next one will be super emotional with some guitar.” I learned that albums need breaks in the middle – it shouldn’t be all super turn up-y tracks all the time, people need a breather – and paid close attention to that.
Rich Brian: I went through a break-up before making this album. Break-ups are just such a great fucking thing, man (laughs). It’s terrible, but it’s also a great feel for an artist. At the time, I was so uninspired. I remember going through a four-month writers’ block where I couldn’t make anything, then I went through a break-up, and I wrote a song right away. When you’re sad as fuck and emotional about something, you really find a way with words, and you articulate how you feel in a really beautiful way, at least for me. My break-up was a huge push because every song I was making, I remember I wanted to impress my ex-girlfriend with it, almost. Thinking “OK, when this song comes out, she’s gonna listen to it, and she’s gonna cry.” It sounds ridiculous, but it was such a huge push when I was making those first couple of songs.
It comes through the most on the last song, “Where Does the Time Go?”, with Joji. That song is really emotional. It sounds like the credits song of a coming-of-age movie. I wouldn’t say I’m talking about a break-up necessarily in that song, but it’s just the way I’m singing and the whole vibe of the song. When I was writing it, I was in that zone.
Rich Brian: The album’s called The Sailor. It’s about a journey. I’m an immigrant, I came here when I was 17 to follow a dream. When I was thinking about this name, I thought, like, “What if one day I have kids in America?” I mean, I don’t know yet – but what if one day I do? I was thinking that if I do have kids in America, I would be that immigrant parent. I was thinking about all the other parents in the past who’ve done that. It’s such a crazy experience. I know I’m not the only one – there are a lot of kids out there who’ve done that, or really, really want to do that, and I want other kids with that same fire in their heart to listen to it and relate to it.
Last year, I celebrated my first birthday without my family, and that was the first time I really felt homesick. I felt like I was doing something wrong here, like this is not right. That was one of the anchor points of homesickness. I really miss Indonesian food, but I always ask my parents for recipes and cook it myself.
The most unexpected place I’ve been with my music? Probably Budapest, as part of my Europe tour. We went to this crazy spa, a huge building that looks like a colosseum. There’s hella hot tubs and a huge pool in the middle. Everyone was there drinking. There was a huge screen, because there was a big soccer game going on, and everyone was in the pool. I’ve never seen anything like that before, I felt like I was in another world. Did I ever expect I’d be in this sort of situation? Not at all. It was definitely one of those moments where I realised, like, “This is my life.” I still feel that, sometimes. One of the other key moments I remember – and this is super random – but I celebrated Memorial Day in LA with my friends. I was just in somebody’s house and they were having a kickback, with a barbecue, and I just thought, “This is so crazy. I can’t believe I’m experiencing this right now.”
Rich Brian: When you have writer’s block, it’s like the end of a creative era. I tried working through it, really forcing myself to come up with something, but sometimes that doesn’t work – and when it doesn’t work, it’s a sign that you’ve gotta start living life. That’s when most of the inspiration really comes through. A lot of my best lyrics are actually written when I’m not at the studio, but when I’m outside somewhere, and suddenly a cool sentence pops into my head. I write it down in my phone and come back to it when I’m writing a song. Writers’ block is cool because it’s like, “It’s time to live, it’s time to get inspired again.” That’s how I’ve been looking at it.
The writers’ block that I went through before this album was the longest and the scariest. It was four months. I was like, “Holy shit what’s gonna happen? Have I forgotten how to make a song?” It wasn’t really me being uninspired, it was me just overthinking everything. Every time I started a song, I’d think, “When am I gonna release this? Is this too not-me-sounding? Have people done his kind of sound before?” I was thinking about that so much, I’d just be too scared to try anything. And then one day, I made a song with my friend for fun, wrote the song on the spot – a stupid, hard, trap-y song – and when we finished it, I thought, “Actually, this doesn’t sound that bad…” I decided that every little song idea I have, no matter how bad it is, I’m just gonna make it, and I’m gonna finish it. It’s exercise. I’m not gonna think about the release. I realised I was making a lot of songs that were actually really good, that were actually better than what I used to make, and then I decided I’m gonna make an album. That’s how this album started.
When I had that realisation, another realisation came with it, which was that I wasn’t gonna be scared with trying out new sounds. I’ve always loved doing melodic stuff, but I’ve always thought that people might hate it because it sounds nothing like me. On this album, I’m just caring less about that, and looking at the bigger picture. Somebody who doesn’t know who I am at all and listens to the album – are they gonna like it? That’s how I’ve been looking at it.