It’s been one year since Rich Brian released his debut project, Amen. In February, he tweeted, “Hope ur ready for the next one :)” but didn’t give any hints or details on what to expect from his sophomore album, The Sailor, coming July 26. The Indonesian rapper has kept a low profile since wrapping up the 88 Degrees and Rising Tour last year, where he got to travel across America with his 88rising labelmates Joji, Higher Brothers, Keith Ape, NIKI, August 08, and Don Krez. In 2019, Brian showed up as a guest feature on Higher Brothers’ Five Stars album, but other than that, he has been focused on creating the album. 

It starts with “Yellow,” a single that Brian has teased by clearing his Instagram, then sharing a portrait of himself in an extremely golden hue. Brian says “Yellow” is an important step forward for his art, explaining that he pushed himself to write about things that are deeply personal to him. He describes it as a song in three acts. In the first, he overcomes obstacles during his journey to America. In the second, he breaks through to prove himself. And in the third, he finds victory.

Produced by Bekon and the Donuts, “Yellow” features Bekon on vocals. It’s a departure from older Rich Brian songs (most notably “Dat Stick”). This isn’t about making another song to start mosh pits, but rather showing maturity in his songwriting and challenging himself to experiment more with warmer production. “Yellow” also has a deeper message: the idea that “everything is possible.” In Rich Brian’s case, he immigrated to America from Indonesia after teaching himself English and became one of the biggest Asian rap stars in the world.

During our conversation, Rich Brian talked about nicotine withdrawals while on tour, working with director Dave Meyers for the “Yellow” video, the concept behind his album The Sailor, his thoughts on Tyler, the Creator, and more. The interview, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Your last project, Amen, dropped in February 2018. What has been the biggest change since then?
The biggest change is the writing has improved a lot. I realized on this album that I can literally title it anything. When I was making it, I was still kind of learning about writing and still trying to find my style. And I wasn’t really sure, like, ‘OK, what can I write about?’ I truly thought you can run out of things to talk about, but you actually cannot. You can literally talk about anything. It’s just a matter of how things are worded. On this album, I am writing about things that are really, really personal to me. I am just trying to be as vulnerable as possible. Production-wise, too, I’m collaborating a lot more versus me doing it all by myself. On this album, I’m learning to let things go a little bit, while not sacrificing my creative freedom.

You posted a golden photo of yourself for the artwork. Tell me about the creative direction behind it. 
That was me and Sean [Miyashiro]’s idea. First, I want to talk about how the song came about. It was about nine months ago. I was on tour with 88rising, with the whole group. It was an amazing tour. It was a bus tour, and we were playing pretty big cities. In the middle of the tour, I quit nicotine. I was like, you know, ‘I’ma quit.’ I just quit in the middle of it and I was like, ‘It’ll be fine.’ 

As the tour kept progressing, I didn’t experience any withdrawals or anything like that, until the last show. In San Francisco, I was about to go on stage, and for some reason, I just felt really nervous. But at the same time, I’ve been nervous before shows before. As soon as I get on stage, I'm still nervous. Then I realized, every time the spotlight goes to me, I get even more anxious. I stuck it out until the fourth song. Then, mid-song, I was just so anxious and I couldn’t handle it. I was like, ‘Fuck this.’ I actually ran off stage and I puked in the trash can.  

Holy shit.
Yeah, it was terrible [Laughs]. My song was still playing. The people around me were radioing other people like, ‘Yeah, he’s throwing up right now.’ I’m like, ‘Yup, this is my fucking nightmare.’ I finished throwing up and I went back on stage to do the show. I didn’t really think about it that much later that night. I was like, ‘That’s just a weird, one-time thing. No big deal.’ And then I realized that was part of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawals.

A day after that show, me, Sean, and NIKI had to go to UC Berkeley for a talk. I’m used to doing shows and this was just a talk. No big deal. I get there, and before I go on stage, I suddenly feel very, very anxious again. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I want to fucking puke right now.’ I told the assistant, ‘Yo, I’m gonna throw up. I don’t know if I wanna go on stage right now, but I’ma try my best.’ I sat down onstage and I was like, ‘I am so fucking nervous right now for absolutely no reason.’ I had to leave in the middle of the talk just because I got so anxious. I told everybody, ‘Sorry guys, it’s my dad calling. I think it’s an emergency.’ I had to leave because I was feeling so sick. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh shit, this is not a one-time thing.’

I was feeling really fucked up about that. Later that night, me, Sean, NIKI, and some of NIKI’s friends were at Sean’s hotel. Sean played me the “Yellow” beat. When everybody heard it, they were just like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ But I said, ‘Yo, play it again.’ And I kept asking Sean to play it again, like, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have this.’ 

When I first started writing it, I was mostly writing about how I felt. I wasn’t thinking about yellow and the whole concept yet. The song kind of felt like a play. It’s like a song with three acts. The first act is: I’m fucked up and I’m suffocating. That’s initially how I felt at the time. I felt like every time I hit a wall. I came to America when I was 17. And that’s when I felt like, “OK, what’s next?” From a creative standpoint, I felt like I hit a wall and it was going to be like writer’s block. And then, the second act, which is kind of the second verse of the song, is me breaking through all that and me proclaiming that I’m going to try to be the best artist that I can be. I want to try and inspire people. That’s what keeps me going.

Rich Brian "Yellow" video behind the scenes
Photo by Yana Yatsuk

In the second verse, you rap, “Dinner, desert, eat these rappers for fun/Don’t give no fucks if you don’t fuck with my shit/Rock 50 stages in all 50 states, bitch/I did it all with no citizenship/To show the whole world that you just gotta imagine.” You’re proving yourself. 
That’s what I was feeling when I was writing it. That was my story.

Going back to your question about the “Yellow” cover art, it came from the creative of the music video, too. When we were thinking about the concept of the video, we wanted to do some cool, golden shit. We were shopping the idea around and pitching it to a bunch of directors. I wanted this video to look as crazy as can be because the song felt like a movie. I wanted to make sure the music video felt the same.

We pitched it to Dave Meyers as a joke, not even thinking he would reply to us. But he did. He got back to us and he was like, “Oh, we’re gonna have to do the song.” We were just like, “Why?” He said when he heard the song, he knew how important it was going to be. He was really inspired as a creator. He just said he had to do it. Dave has been so great as a creator. Me, him, and Sean worked on the concept together. He has been with us all along the way. Even after the shoot, we’ve been talking every day about the edit revision. He’s been there the whole time.

Why did you clear your Instagram?
It's cool when other rappers do it so I just did it, too [Laughs]. I’ve never done that before. I haven’t dropped songs in a while. I just want to make sure people know that something is coming.

I represent those people who feel like they don’t have the support that they need.

Does “Yellow” tie into Asian identity? There’s a lyric in the song where you say, “Don’t fight the feeling cause I’m yellow.” 
Absolutely. It’s about Asian identity and in a more general sense, I wrote the song to let other Asians know that they can do what they want. Everything is possible. That’s not something that you really think about, but if you don’t have a role model to that... I’m not saying I am the role model or whatever. It's tough, you know? In a world where there aren’t that many people doing it, it’s like, “Oh, is it even possible?” It’s not something to even think about. With this song, I just wanted to make sure people know that.

But for people that aren’t even Asian, like I was saying, there’s the whole three acts of the song. It’s kinda like at first, you’re a version of struggling. It's basically showing that you can go through struggle with a victorious kind of ending. 

How would you describe the final act of the song?
It's like I’m breaking through all that shit. It’s really a victorious feeling. That’s what I was trying to capture on the third act. It’s like the world is coming together. That’s just the feeling.

The song is produced by Bekon and the Donuts. After mostly producing your first album, are you getting comfortable working with outside producers?
Yeah. absolutely. They’ve been helping me on the side, just executive producing it and helping us form this album sonically. It’s been a huge help. I have been feeling very comfortable around those guys. It’s really tight. It’s a really cool feeling to go to the studio every day and see the same people. It’s kind of like going to an office, except you’re making really dope shit [Laughs].

How these guys work is they’ll do jam sessions. With Bekon and the Donuts, it’s kind of like six different producers, and they’re all fire. The way people usually make music is they make it on the computer and send it to other people. That works, too. But the way these guys did it, and I had never done before. They would actually set up jam sessions. They would connect keyboards and guitar and computers all through ProTools and just record everything live. There would be a mic in the middle of the room for the artist. If I ever get inspired to do a melody or a four or something, I can just say it to the mic and it’s all being recorded. 

We would jam for three hours straight, and some of them were fully realized ideas. Some were short, rough ideas, but we listened to all of it at the end of the day, like, “OK, this one can turn into a full song.” We have quite a bit of those that actually made it on the album. It’s a really cool process.

What’s the story behind The Sailor?
There are two meanings. One of the meanings is a personal kind of journey. Just like me growing up, coming here to this country, being an explorer, and being curious about everything—just exploring uncharted territory. That’s one of the more general meanings. The Sailor is someone who is curious, an explorer, and just not afraid to explore new stuff. The other meaning is kind of a metaphor for all the people who came to this country, like the Asian American parents and grandparents who came to this country as immigrants. Any immigrants that came to the country for a better opportunity and to live a better life. It’s representing all people.

You’ve always talked about Tyler, the Creator being your biggest inspiration. You saw him live for the first time in May. Have you listened to IGOR yet?
I have listened to IGOR, and I love that album. What I loved the most about that album is that it is a whole body of work. You can really tell. The whole thing from start to finish kind has its own sound. It’s all really cohesive. That’s another thing that I try to achieve with this album. People don’t really do albums anymore. People just make a folder of songs with two or three hit singles. I really miss being able to listen through a whole album. I was listening to Acid Rap by Chance the Rapper the other day on YouTube. That’s how I found most of my music: just people uploading mixtapes and albums on YouTube.

I remember being able to listen to the whole thing, where it feels like its own thing. I don’t get that feeling on albums anymore, because people don’t have that attention span, and that causes artists to reverse engineer things and make albums that fit what the people want. I really just want to bring that shit back. The album experience is something. It’s crazy man.

We’ve seen a Latin boom in American music these past couple of years. Do you think we are at the same place for Asian artists? Are they being embraced more in the mainstream?
I think we are starting to. When people ask me about how Asian people are represented in America right now, I think it's better than it was. I still think we are on our way, and I think all these things that are happening are amazing, like K-Pop. K-Pop is some other shit. People love K-Pop. It is the best thing ever. It’s amazing. I saw BTS live at the Staples Center and just seeing all these American girls singing all the Korean lyrics is the craziest shit to see. I think we are still on our way there.

My way of separating myself from [others], is I represent the independent artist, the kids who are in their bedrooms making music, and Asian kids from fucking Idaho or something like that [Laughs]. You know what I mean? People in the middle of nowhere who want to do something and want to make a change in the world. I represent those people who feel like they don’t have the support that they need.