While Lexie Liu’s debut EP, ‘2030’, is a revelation in its own - meandering emotions and introspections with fluvial sensuality - there’s a particular moment on her track ‘Bygone’ that stands out. Perhaps the most autobiographical song on the album, it chronicles her experiences in college and the aftermath of her parents’ separation. Somewhere in there, Liu - born and raised in the Chinese province of Hunan - proudly claims, “One day, yellow skin can enter the White House.”
“It’s a metaphor. It’s not like I want to be president,” she’s quick to explain. “It’s just about pride, you know.”
Albeit brief, it’s an admirable instance, maybe even one of solidarity - from one Asian to another - but it’s not until you look at Liu’s oeuvre that the weight of the statement truly sinks in. Lexie Liu is made of pride. She comes back to it repeatedly: on the aforementioned ‘Bygone’; on the eponymous track ‘Mulan’ (after the sixteenth century warrior, not the watered down Disney version); in references to her time on The Rap of China, the hip-hop survival show that catapulted her to fame; and even, in many ways, the lyrical structures of her music itself.
Calling it a defense mechanism, however, would be a doing flagrant disservice to Liu. Peel back the layers and you’ll find that her pride germinates from a place of communal strength: it’s the same emotion that fuels the lot of us resisting the proliferated stereotypes against Asian people - in school, at work, in Hollywood, and in music.
“Pride is something I feel every day and my hope is for others to feel it in themselves too,” she says. “That’s why I like to talk about it a lot, so when people listen to my music, they too can feel it.”
Lexie Liu is about as Asian as it gets, and there is nothing you can do about it.
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She’s also endearingly, characteristically twenty. It’s almost disarming: once you’re used to the sonorous, sultry echoes of her vocals, the feathery lightness and facetious colloquialisms in her voice give you pause. It betrays the fact that not very long ago, she was just a college student, hazing through morning classes in New York and wishing for something different.
“It was a very boring life,” she recalls. “I was majoring in global business, because that's what my parents do, and I felt like majoring in business would make them feel safer.”
She calls it “a very Chinese thing”: something tried and tested as a career, while music was relegated to a hobby, though she had spent a year in South Korea as a contestant on a music reality show, K-pop Star 5, immediately after high school.
Naturally, college didn’t make her very happy: “I tried to transfer, so I studied really hard, went to different places for activities. I was under a lot of pressure too, with the schoolwork—I wanted to make music. I felt like Global Business was not what I wanted. I felt like music was the only outlet for me.”
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Liu left midway and headed for her motherland once again, participating instead in The Rap of China, the popular reality show that’s credited with injecting hip-hop into the Chinese mainstream, where she finished fourth. Before the season was up, she’d been signed to 88Rising - the US-based label spearheading the Asian hip-hop wave - and become the youngest Chinese artist to perform at SXSW.
Liu, however, recalls having a serious case of impostor syndrome at the time: “I've always been very not-so-confident about myself. Seeing all these experienced rappers, who'd been in the game for like, ten years, and they're all my ‘shĩfu’ - I don't think there is a word in English - like a mentor. They were all there and competing with me, with very good skills. And I still survived somehow. I got very lucky.”
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‘2030’, thus, is the culmination of Lexie Liu’s blossoming. An intimate journey where she constructs and deconstructs herself, wrapping up her ambitions, regrets, and desires in trenchant verses juxtaposed with crooning vocals. It’s the perfect artistic mosaic of a debut: extracted from her Asian heritage, from classic literature, from her own whimsies, and flitting from nonchalant confidence to unwilling resignation over the course of its tracks.
“There are so many things in that album, but basically it's just a viewpoint for me,” she explains. “A little Chinese girl trying to put different things together and make a new sound; some of my daily over-thinking too. It might relate to people at some point. There's some heartbreak and stuff, too. A lot is going on there.”
While her music is rooted in hip-hop and R&B, she’s never pigeonholed herself into either category. She prefers instead to experiment and sample different sounds into her songs: “To put this sort of tag on my music - I don't know, it's just a side of it. It has a lot of different elements from hip-hop, R&B, and Mandopop. I've been trying new things, trying to put them together and mixing languages and genres as well, both melodic and rap.”
For Liu, it’s all about how the music flows, even as she goes seamlessly from Chinese to English and from knife-point rap to slow, sensual verses: “It's more like a flowy thing. It really depends on how I felt at that point.”
Anything else, she says, would be “way too in the box.”
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The songs on 2030, thus, set rhythms that are eclectic, yet almost too familiar to the body, like the satisfactory image of someone expertly stepping stones across a stream, or beating their fingers on a table in perfect synchronization. She spins a cyberpunk fantasia in ‘Nada’ supplemented by trap beats, while ‘Hat Trick’ is peak dark, sensual Hollywood glamour, the lyrical equivalent of sending someone tumbling off the deep end.
There are distinct dancehall and pop tinges to ‘Strange Things’ and ‘Love And Run’, while ‘Sleep Away’ - one of her early works - channels her R&B roots. Bringing it all full circle is ‘Mulan’, the song that, in some ways, started everything. Liu first performed it as a contestant on Rap of China and - though she didn’t have the popular vote - the power packed, spitfire rap landed her a spot among the Top 15 finalists, also making her the only woman to make it through.
Almost a year later, she’s ambivalent when people call her the voice of modern China, or the Chinese Rihanna. It’s “very extra”, as she puts it. “I think it's like a two-sided thing,” she explains. “When it gets positive, I feel like I'm getting more recognized by people. I might have the chance to become someone that they said - I might. In the negative way, it's a lot of pressure too: a lot of eyes on me, and I have to be more careful and bossier when it comes to my music.”
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It’s something she’s struggled with since the early days, trying to come up in the “sausage party” that is China’s hip-hop scene, with success often darkened by clouds of doubt. “There are not many female rappers in the industry in China. There are a couple—we're friends and they're awesome, but in the show, there weren't. So, I felt that people started to feel like: ‘is she here just because she's a girl?’ Like, no one wants to watch a show full of guys.”
She attributes much of her success to luck, although it does sound unfair for fate to have all the credit, especially since Liu is singularly aware of her unique position as an artist. While Asians in hip-hop is certainly not a new phenomenon, the interpolation has had its crests and troughs.
As their music goes from being underrepresented in English-dominated markets to progressively global, Asian hip-hop artists have often been called out for their superficial treatment of the genre, for extracting the buzzwords and trends without understanding the connotations of either.
More recently, fans have aggressively pointing out instances of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity - in 2018, Liu’s label-mate and Indonesian rapper Rich Brian announced that he had changed his professional name from Rich Chigga to the former, explaining that he regretted previous stage name, even if he was young and naïve when he came up with it.
Even in her native China - statistically one of the largest music markets in the world - hip-hop’s tryst with popular culture has been fairly recent. “Hip-hop wasn't a big thing when I was in high school,” she elaborates. “It only started as a big thing the year before last with the show 'The Rap of China'. When I was in high school, nobody listened to hip-hop. Nobody listened to R&B either.” The historical complexities of hip-hop, thus, often go overlooked.
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Liu, however, opines that merging Chinese culture with hip-hop would have to be grounded in real life instead of popular precedents. For Asian artists to excel at hip-hop, they would have to tailor their lyrics to tap into the collective Asian consciousness.
“I wouldn't talk about stuff that I'm not qualified to talk about. I want my music to be real and true; it speaks my mind and how I see things,” she says. “Culture-wise, even if it is hip-hop and we didn't grow up in that environment, we can take something. Hip-hop has that swag and that confidence, and it gives people power in a mental way. This kind of positive energy could be brought in with my real story and my real vision.”
To do that, Liu dives deep, often referencing literature that inspires her. Other times, she feeds on the energy of her label-mates. “They’re awesome,” she says. “They have this vision that I've always tried to accomplish, which is actually crossing over cultures and making this new movement that kinda extends the possibilities of music.”
These days, though, she’s content with immersing herself in studio sessions, trying on new styles and exploring the possibilities of her music. Though she plays it close to the chest when asked about a possible tour, she does mention that she enjoys private venues, where the vibes are more intimate.
'2030' might be done, but Liu has more things to say, sundry visions to explore. No other plans—she’s just going to keep doing what she does and create her own story.
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Words: Lavanya Singh
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