Far East Movement Make EDM-Pop Bangers About Asian-American Identity
When “Like a G6” appeared on the radio six years ago, the timing couldn't have been better. With its unmistakable synth/bass combo and a robo-voice hook provided by Dev, the song rode the first wave of EDM-pop’s chart dominance to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, making Far East Movement the first Asian-American group to ever hit No. 1. But the L.A. act's good luck didn't last long. By the time their follow-up album, Dirty Bass, rolled around in 2012, it already sounded out of touch, like an imitation of the Black Eyed Peas circa 2009; the album failed to produce a hit that would get them back into the Top 20 despite features from Justin Bieber, Tyga, Pitbull, and Flo Rida. Far East Movement's latest effort, Identity, might not get them all the way back to EDM-pop ubiquity, but they've done something more important, drawing on new sonic styles and collaborators for a record that very much sounds like the experience of working out a hybrid Asian-American identity for a lot of young Asian kids in America.
Identity is a marked shift for Far East Movement as musicians. Their vocals appear sporadically throughout the project, shifting their primary function instead to songwriting, production, and curation; each guest vocalist feels like a deliberate nod to the group's Korean-American identity and the influences that shaped it. They’ve drawn features from across the K-pop and K-hip-hop spectrum, including Hyolyn from Sistar, Chanyeol of EXO, and Tiffany from Girls Generation. The artists they call in from America reflect their love of black American culture, from Mississippi-raised rapper Big K.R.I.T. to pop R&B singer Tinashe. Whereas previous guest-star lineups felt like desperate attempts to keep the dream of “Like a G6” alive, Identity’s choices are unmistakably Far East Movement — thoughtful and specific picks that highlight their roots in two distinct musical worlds.
They use these guests to span a range of dance styles, channeling the way Asian-American identity often draws from a variety of sources. “SXWME” is penned and produced by British pop-house prodigy MNEK, who busts out the vocoder again for a funky (and fun) house bop. Korean rapper Jay Park provides a goofy verse that nods to Biggie Smalls and his own love of American hip-hop culture. The raunchy and juvenile “Double Dip” solicits a boundlessly energetic hook from Soulja Boy over a track that contains the energy and bed squeaks of club music made by Far East Movement's L.A.-based co-producer Cory Enemy (who is, coincidentally, heavily influenced by Japanese club culture). Elsewhere on the album, the group capitalize on EDM-pop 2.0’s preference for big drops that highlight vulnerability and emotion rather than, you know, getting slizzard — smart thinking in the era of The Chainsmokers and DJ Snake. The unmistakable Macy Gray features on “Forever Survivor,” with Gray using well-worn tropes of roads, storms, reaching for the sky, and “one step at a time” to emote about her life’s trials and tribulations, building up to an inevitable, big, obvious climax.
The album opens with perhaps its most defining moment. “Fighter” is a song about the struggles faced by Asian immigrants and the resilience of their communities within America. The production here fits the message: Backing chants make the song sound like it's giving voice to a larger movement, and in the build to the big swells, there’s a pinging that sounds like it could have been created by a pipa. The song features Yoon Mi-rae on vocals, and although she is known as one of the baddest bitches in the K-hip-hop scene, she sings her lines contemplatively; there is vulnerable strength when she declares, “Knock us down but we’re survivors.” It’s a fitting opening statement for Far East Movement, who have struggled immensely to establish themselves more permanently in the American pop-music sphere. Not coincidentally, Identity features many Asian-American vocalists, including Tiffany, Jay Park, and Yoon Mi-rae herself, who are more famous in Asia than in the country where they were born. (Efforts by Asian pop stars to break into the U.S. and Western markets don’t often pan out, including a recent attempt by 2NE1 member CL, who’s barely been able to crack the Billboard charts despite signing with big-time manager Scooter Braun.) The fact that these artists are featuring on a Far East Movement album as a way into American pop music is itself a defining statement on the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in U.S. pop culture.
Identity is Far East Movement’s attempt to create that space for themselves by highlighting what makes them different rather than shrinking from it. Drawing on cultural influences across two worlds is something lots of Asian-Americans have in common. For many, especially those who are second-generation, yearning to understand the homeland of the people who raised them comes through an exploration of culture. Asian-American kids watch Wong Kar-wai films, fight over the best noodle soup restaurant, and consume hours of YouTube videos of their favorite K-pop groups. They love these cultural artifacts, which are understood as markers of cool otherness rather than alienating norms imposed by a dominant white American culture. Identity is a distinctly Asian-American album, and it speaks to the very specific experience of a group of people who are often seen as foreigners in their own home. But there’s no sense of loss here — Far East Movement have made a cohesive, exciting celebration of that hybrid life.