By Da’Shan Smith
Twenty years ago, on February 2, TLC released their signature smash, “No Scrubs.” Set as a guideline to warn ladies about “broke-ass” bustas “sittin’ on the passenger side of their best friend’s ride,” the hit single topped charts of multiple countries, including the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. “No Scrubs” contains a masterful blend of Chilli and T-Boz’s R&B vocals, a pop chorus penned by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, Kandi Burruss, and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, as well as a rap verse from Left Eye. Its video matched Janet and Michael Jackson’s outworldly “Scream” with its futurist ambitions.
Last May, I ended up coining the distinct genre of the “No Scrubs” era (existing in ’90s and early-2000s female R&B) as “Electro-hop&B,” pinpointing these anthems’ intergalactic bounce. At the end of that article I concluded: “With persistent political movements for women’s rights continuing for eternity, and now a sweltering rise of Asian acts and music taking over the Billboard charts, the music industry could see a mainstream resurgence of the subgenre that once championed independent women willing to define their lives on their own terms.”
At the beginning of this year, the mainstream music scene seemed to be fulfilling that prophecy with the release of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” and Kehlani’s “Nights Like This.” These records not only followed the Electro-hop&B leads of TLC, but also mirrored East Asian undertones present in some ’90s R&B music. At the same time, the discourse and controversy centered around whether or not Grande is benefiting from cultural appropriation (and her infamous tattoo) got me further thinking about cultural fusion in the music industry at large.
“7 Rings” and “Nights Like This” shouldn’t be fully classified as Electro-hop&B records, but rather Pacific-trap&B. Both songs have trap&B styles that align with the Bay Area and Los Angeles, California. Fused into these vibes are sonic and visual influences from various East Asian genres including J-pop of Japan, C-pop of China, and K-pop of Korea. These songs have a trans-Pacific connection, as all four regions border the Pacific Ocean.
This particular blending of genres into a massive one is nothing new to the music scene. The examples extend far and wide in this decade alone, from Far East Movement and Dev’s 2010 hit “Like a G6” to The Weeknd’s “Reminder” or Future’s “Mask Off.” The blending of hip-hop and R&B in K-pop is also evident in the discographies of 2NE1, BLACKPINK, and BTS. Rolling Stone also previously documented how notable songwriters from the R&B scene (such as Teddy Riley and August Rigo) have ventured out to writing camps for some of these artists. The following list of examples are personal picks from eight women who successfully execute the sound of Pacific-trap&B.
Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”
Starting off with an ominous, tick-tocking from a marimba — leading into an interpolation of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music —“7 Rings” immediately sets a tone for the lavish. Afterwards, the looping of a Japanese shamisen underscores Grande’s “Gimme The Loot” and “Pretty Boy Swag” flow, gloating about what black cards can afford her and her friends. However, it’s the video which caused controversy: From the posh pink trap house (which 2 Chainz would later cosign in the official remix) to Japanese lettering on the single cover as well as some cultural props inside the kitchen. One can only “Imagine” what’s to come on Thank U, Next (particularly on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”)…
Victoria Monét ft/ Ty Dolla $ign, “Made In China”
Monét has served as a key songwriter and producer for Grande, from their first collabs on Grande’s Yours Truly and My Everything to her inclusion on the “7 Rings” dream team. When Monét was making her solo start in 2014, she released “Made In China,” a love ode powered by trap hi-hats and the metaphorical meaning of the title. What drives this song is its dramatic roots in native Chinese mandopop, led by Monét’s angelic cooing, a pipa instrument, and electronic synthesizers backed by a verse from L.A.’s own Ty Dolla $ign.
Kehlani ft/ Ty Dolla $ign, “Nights Like This”
Kehlani’s music comes a sense of ethereal realness, assisted by candid and vulnerable lyricism. Voyaging into her sophomore era after SweetSexySavage, the Oakland native (and mommy-to-be) continues to lean into the TLC inspirations that propelled her to pop stardom. “Nights Like This” heralds elements of city pop, Tokyo’s jazz fusion, soul, and soft rock subgenre-offshoot of J-pop. This cut is reminiscent of the futuristic vibes on TLC’s FanMail, the parent album of “No Scrubs.” It’s more than likely that while she was touring in Japan last year, Kehlani was highly influenced by the nation’s technoculture, as evident by the robotic music video.
Kay Cola, “D.M.T.”
As an attendee of Kehlani’s majestic baby shower last month, Kay Cola also understands the influence of blending East Asian pop with trap. The songwriter (whose sang in the choir of Eminem’s “Not Afraid,”) has released a few indie mixtapes and EPs discussing the state of lucid dreaming. Back in 2014, she opened up about her love for 2NE1 and being a fan of K-Pop. In 2016, Kay Cola released her alter-ego EP, Lucy, which includes “D.M.T. (Discover My Truth).” The song takes a few cues from the harmony of K-pop, as she discusses a soulmate from “a past life.” Another highlight that hits these tones is “Dear God,” which features her father, Hubert Laws, playing the flute.
Jhené Aiko, “Overstimulated”
On her last album, Trip, Jhené Aiko conceptually taps into healing her soul with the help of hallucinogenic drugs and psychedelia-sonics. As a descendant of multiple ethnicities, Aiko delves into some instrumentation from her Japanese heritage, including wind chimes and bells. Powered by the energetics of trap, “Overstimulated” explores the rushing side effects of her trip, a kokyū violin underscoring this song’s particular journey towards the end.
DaniLeigh, “Lil Bebe”
On the official website of her record label, Def Jam, DaniLeigh describes Aaliyah and Missy Elliott (who have both dabbled in these tones via “More Than A Woman” and “Work It,” respectively) as her “biggest influences,” and her clothing style as “very ’90s driven.” When looking at the music video of “Lil Bebe,” these influences not only come to life in her bodega, sneaker store, barber shop, night club, and apartment — they’re heard on the actual track. DaniLeigh’s vocal delivery possesses a flow that matches the style of K-pop and takes inspiration from another personal fave, Rihanna. Oh, and there’s also a play-on-words remix featuring the actual Lil Baby.
Rina Sawayama, “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”
As a Japanese-born, emerging indie-pop artist, Rina Sawayama takes the futurism of Pacific-Trap&B into a rave matching the likes of fellow Brit Charli XCX. There’s a digi-tick-tocking underscoring the chorus of “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” where she “came here on my own” as the chorus goes. In an interview with The Fader, Sawayama mentions that “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” explores the duality between pessimism and optimism, as well as anxiety and freedom in the internet age.
Lexie Liu, “Nada”
Lexie Liu revealed to Billboard last month that when she was competing in her native reality competition show, The Rap of China, she was often criticized for pop singing rather than rapping. By the sounds of “Nada” alone, which is acidic and melodic with the help of a TB-303 bass line, her sensual style would be the perfect fit in an American market currently dominated by trap&B. The lyrics of “Nada” are half English and half Mandarin, drawing allusions to NASA spacecrafts and birds flying away from their cages. Liu gloats about hefty pockets, designer clothes, yachts, wraiths, and “flexin’ all day,” bringing everything Pacific-trap&B full circle.