BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » Review: The Confluence of Art and Hip-Hop in Rapper Táo's Melancholic Music

Review: The Confluence of Art and Hip-Hop in Rapper Táo's Melancholic Music

Táo, based in Saigon, began his career as a rapper and developed his interests to include painting, poetry, literature, modeling, and photography. As a rapper, Táo has a recognizable rap style that cannot be mistaken.

He likes to push the boundaries of the genre and himself by incorporating different Vietnamese poetic forms and national music into his songs, which establishes the combination of American rap culture and Vietnamese national culture. In his upcoming project “Y?”, the process of collaboration with many independent artists, within and without music, poses the question: What is it like to be a marginal artist in Vietnam at this time?

From when rap was looked at as the marginal art of the underground to 2020 when rap emerged in Vietnam as the cultural hallmark of the year. King of Rap and Rap Việt are two reality TV rap shows with record-breaking ratings. The finale of the Rap Việt scored another world record as the most-watched YouTube livestream ever with 1 million viewers. This could be a surprise for many people, as rap in Vietnam used to receive strict censorship and only operated in underground forums. The events in 2020 have brought many talents to light, despite not participating in the show, as the trend has gotten more and more commercial attention. Having been a recognizable artist with his unique style in the underground rap scene, Táo’s arts also attract collaboration and sponsorship from many established artists and organizations. He emerges as a figure to connect rap to both the high art and commercial audiences.

Phonetically, “Y” is a question (why?), “Y” is a color (white), or “Y” may be his lover’s initial. The project possibly questions what is “art” by packing different expressions into a symbolic letter. Art is a journey looking for one’s identity without conforming to a single form of expression. Art may be the journey of an unsatisfactory self to looking for who he is and what he can do to find this answer. With this project, Táo claims that rap is not the only form he can express himself. Each track of the EP consists of nhạc (music), trang (outfit), thi (poetry), họa (visual art) to deliver an audiovisual experience. The emotions that encapsulate in each project can be seen in his passion for music, his body that redefines beauty standards, Vietnamese poetry traditions, and the immediate impression of an expressionist artwork. As an artist, Táo is showing that he can practice any form despite one’s identity. Táo wants to introduce us to those who inspire and go along with him on this journey, and they are poets, painters, musicians, fashion designers, filmmakers, photographers, dancers.

The EP starts with 'Blue Tequila' as the first song. On a melancholic night in a bar, a guy encounters a stranger, a girl who comforts him through the night. His heart is throbbing, and he falls for her. He soon realizes that the girl never belonged to him. Contributing to this are SamD, with the artwork A Night of Melancholy that appears in the music video made by Astronormous and The Tripod Guy, and cameos with independent artists like Wean, Hải Tú, wardrobe by Môi Điên, and a collaborative poem with Nam Thi. The first track sets the tone for the subsequent ones, which combines different elements between the past, the present, and the future; between Vietnam’s traditional art that dances with others from Hong Kong’s cinema to American jazz and contemporary electronic music.

'Tương Tư (Lovesickness)' is a collaboration with the sound of đàn nhị from Renée (Thảo Linh) and artwork by Kokubo (Minh Tường). The song continues the story of 'Blue Tequila' to portray his emotion years after the incident. The girl has left a hole in his heart that no one else can fulfill. Thảo Linh is a rare young musician who has an interest in a traditional instrument like đàn nhị. Her appearance in Vietnam’s Got Talent in 2014 brought back the traditional music with the new generation’s sound. The performance mesmerized the judges and the audiences with poetic lyrics of the last century. The forgotten sound was broadcasted on the television, no longer a melancholic past but the new generation’s energy. The artwork by Kokubo, named Diễu-Hành-Gia (The Parade Man), presents the undefined emotion of the lovesickness that traps one into an inescapable cycle of thoughts, desperately trying to pull himself out of the obsessive past. In the invitation card for the publishing event, the artwork combined with augmentation reality technology strengthens the sense of spatiotemporal dynamics of the whole project.

With “Y?”, Táo introduces his audience to a part of the Vietnamese contemporary independent art scene made up of diverse voices from many parts of society, while mainstream culture presents the status quo. As a person who has grown up with a focus on his weight, Táo has been constantly judged by his appearance. This leads to the sensitivity he has from others’ opinions on his outlook. In a statement, he claims that he wants to be judged by his art alone and nothing else. An ambitious project like the EP “Y?” demonstrates his statement by subverting the ideal standards. His art is the representation of his inner life and thoughts to reveal his vulnerability — despite judgment. His music is saturated with sadness from different forms of rejections that isolate one to the margin of everyday life. This is also applicable to artists who practice traditional and marginal art forms such as poetry, rap, painting, and traditional music that have been forgotten, marginalized, or placed in the institution of the museum. As an expression, art blurs the differences and unites people to contemplate this beauty of the margin.

Nhân Trần-Tiễn is an international student from Vietnam. He’s currently a master student in Film Studies at Concordia University and reside in Montreal, Canada.

This review by Nhân Trần-Tiễn originally appeared in diaCRITICS and has been republished with permission as part of an ongoing collaboration between Saigoneer and diaCRITICS. Read our feature on the US-based literary publication here.

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