Sometimes a talent comes along who just seems like they’re good at everything and in the case of 20-year-old Lexie Liu, it’s because she really is. The 88rising’s latest signee from China’s Hunan province just released 2030, a diverse eight-track EP that stitches pop, R&B and rap together and sprays it all with a veneer of sleek cyberpunk. The bilingual EP is clear-eyed showcase of artistic vision and sonic diversity that few artists in recent memory have pulled off on their first full release, short of perhaps Lorde and Billie Eilish.
The list of skills in Lexie Liu’s repertoire runs long: she raps, sings, dances, writes songs and manages to find some time to model on the side. On one song, Liu is skying for choruses that has fans dubbing her ‘Chinese Rihanna’ (reductionist and premature, sure, but high praise). On another, she’s bending her native tongue around choppy bars like a lyricist beyond her years. Pair it all with her unshakeable confidence and magnetic charisma and you’ve got an act more than ready for her hour in the limelight.
2030 isn’t an EP built around one big single, but instead showcases Liu’s musical breadth. ‘Love and Run’ is the most complete pop song on the record, a catchy track that patient builds around Californian producer DENM’s synth-laden backing. Through its verses, Liu simmers only to elevate for a chorus with gusto that could easily slide into the Billboard top 10 on any week of the year.
Elsewhere, ‘Bygone’ is a nimble R&B cut that feels like the best song Tinashe never made, with a dollop of early Lorde. ‘Strange Things’ tastefully blends dancehall without sounding contrived or out-of-place, while ‘Sleep Away’ is a delicate and lush production. Not everything lands – ‘Nada’ is a sterilised rap trope which gets shown up later by the far better head-knocker ‘Mulan’ but regardless, 2030 is a rare treat: a proper debut project that is loaded with potential, polish and creativity.
For what it’s worth, none of this happened overnight: Lexie Liu has been working to get here since she was 16, where she was a girl group aspirant on South Korea’s K-Pop Star 5 television series. After making the finals, Liu reportedly knocked back a deal from YG Entertainment, the label of BLACKPINK, BIGBANG and 2NE1, to chase success on her own terms back home in China.
It didn’t take long. In late 2016, Liu released ‘Coco Made Me Do It’, a dizzy trap-inspired rebrand that achieved moderate domestic success, racking up over nine million plays. With some buzz behind her in the blossoming Chinese urban scene, Liu left home for a semester at New York’s Fordham University. Her experience in the United States – which included a performance at South by Southwest – proved revelatory. In 2017, Liu quit her studies altogether and returned to China to pursue music full-time.
Her big break came in early 2018, where she made a deep run on The Rap of China, the star-making reality competition, which features Kris Wu as a judge. Bolstered by her time abroad, Liu commands each episode with innate conviction and presence. An outspoken talent on a male-dominated series, Liu thundered through the competition with a potent blend of pop charisma and rap bravado.
It was only after she garnered a following on The Rap of China that Lexie Liu inked a deal with 88rising, a company she’d knocked back a year prior. It was a signifier that Liu had achieved her goal of making it in her home country, and was eyeing the hard-to-crack Western hip-hop market. Few have as much as success as 88rising in connecting Asian artists with Western hip-hop fans, having boosted Rich Brian, Joji, Keith Ape, the Higher Brothers and more into rap’s mainstream.
Now with a phenomenal project out and a savvy team behind her, the future for Lexie Liu is bright, though it’s not clear whether her rise will be meteoric or a more gradual. 88rising have a proven ability to kick in doors for Asian artists, but their biggest act – Rich Brian – seems to have plateaued for now as a moderately popular footnote in a crowded landscape.
That may not be 88rising’s fault: hip-hop is not a genre traditionally inclusive of Asian identities and their biggest artists to date have been significant transformation projects: Rich Brian was an offensive meme named after a racial slur that has been ushered to embrace a new image as an awkward-but-charming wunderkind, while Joji’s emotional autopsy music is a marked departure from his previous life as internet provocateur Filthy Frank.
Lexie Liu has the promise and talent to be far bigger. 2030 is a strong mission statement that shows we’ll be talking about her for more than a minute. With a sound already so refined, a charisma that demands your attention and a confidence that truly doesn’t care whether or not she has it, Liu is set to be a rising force to deal with in 2019.