Music | Sound Off

Hip-hop's anime crush is beautiful

by Dylan Foley

Contributing Writer

Takashi Murakami’s work on Billie Eilish’s new video for “You Should See Me in a Crown” is the latest example of Western music’s ongoing love affair with Japanese anime. And while it may seem obvious — American kids who like anime and grow up to be musicians are going to pay respect — it’s still exciting to see the art form embraced by Lil Uzi Vert, Soulja Boy and so many other artists in the world of hip-hop.

If you haven’t been listening to the lyrics, you may have missed the links. A recent uptick in anime-charged prose, however, has seen mentions of mainstream fan favorites such as “Dragonball Z” and “Naruto,” and more obscure series like “Berserk” and “Lupin the Third.” And what may seem like a playful nod to fandoms seems increasingly like a bona fide merging of cultures.

Anime might be Japan’s most valuable soft-power weapon — even more than sushi. The 2018 Report on the Japanese Anime Industry recorded an increase in the market value of anime’s overseas market by 29.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, and although it can’t be said for certain how much of an effect the government’s “Cool Japan” initiative had on anime’s bountiful year abroad (it’s like selling chocolate — who doesn’t like chocolate?!) it might be safe to say that anime would’ve gotten that push regardless of Shinzo Abe’s help. A better Cool Japan spokesman might have been Kanye West.

In his 2007 video for “Stronger,” West lives out an escapist fantasy by venturing into the cyberpunk dystopia of Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira.” The track features a sample of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which, as music fans probably know, came from the dance-music duo’s 2001 album “Discovery.” Daft Punk worked with animator Leiji Matsumoto to produce an animated film titled “Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem” that was set to all the tracks on “Discovery.”

When it comes to anime representation in the 2010s, singer Frank Ocean has paid homage to “Dragonball Z” on multiple occasions. Ocean namedrops Majin Buu, the bubble-gum pink villain of the series, on the 2012 track “Pink Matter,” and refers to series protagonist Goku as a “natural blondie” on his 2017 single “Provider.”

Florida-based hip-hop artist Robb Banks has become an underground champion of anime, regularly engaging in conversations with Twitter followers about which series or characters he has found inspiration in and posting a video of his personal diamond-encrusted “Berserk”-themed ring. Banks has also received critical praise for the obscurity of his cleverly thought out anime-related rhymes.

These examples barely scratch the surface when it comes to the abundance of spoken anime references in hip-hop and R&B. What gets fans of both anime and hip-hop hyped up is when the two fields collide visually.

Pharrell Williams’ 2014 “It Girl” video features an original and eclectic mix of animation styles from none other than Billie Eilish-collaborator (and, did we mention he’s the forefather of the superflat art movement) Takashi Murakami.

In addition to being the vision behind the album art for West’s 2007 album “Graduation,” Murakami has also collaborated with the likes of Drake and The Weeknd. Heavily inspired by anime and manga, his trademark style helped bring him to the core of the two converging subcultures. Thanks to his work on West’s “Good Morning,” Williams’ “It Girl,” and Eilish’s “You Should See Me in a Crown,” Murakami has been central in bringing tangible examples of Japanese-style animation to American hip-hop’s mainstream.

While West may get a lot of credit for a boost in anime’s popularity (to quote one of his tweets: “No way Spirited Away is better than Akira… NOOO WAAAY”), it’s just as likely music’s current crop of creators could’ve been fans of anime music videos (AMVs) on YouTube well before they started rapping and writing. An easily accessible creative outlet for budding and part-time creators, AMVs typically mix fan-favorite fight sequences with a background song of the editor’s choice, resulting in an improvised music video.

Though rock and punk constituted most of the initial soundtracks for the genre, AMV creators eventually branched out to combining the 808s of hip-hop with well-known scenes from “Naruto” (syncing Rock Lee’s kicks to the bass of various beats is a particular favorite of mine), and suckafish80’s “Samurai Champloo” tribute in 2006.

Wherever it’s coming from — the Japanese government, Kanye West, YouTube whiz kids — hip-hop and anime are definitely a match made in heaven.

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