“We have to invent the future.”
– Mark Fisher
When Vinh Ngan collaborated with fellow Londoner Palmistry in 2012 to create NXB, the global nexus of culture was almost fully shifted to the internet. But the network — here referring to internet connectivity/high-speed data exchanges via an infrastructure of fiber optics, satellites, warehouses, etc. — had not reached the salience it enjoys in 2019.
These days, it’s easy for me to overlook the network’s dominance. In terms of music and culture, 2012 doesn’t feel so long ago, but when I consider that Instagram had only just been purchased by Facebook, Tinder was not yet the modus operandi of dating, Bitcoin was still limited to the dark web, Vine’s official launch was still a year away, Twitter’s feed wasn’t algorithmic yet, etc., I begin to get a better sense of the time that has passed. In 2012, the network’s cement had been poured, but it was still wet. The conduits of networked interaction that I, like so many others, now take for granted were very much still gestating.
Now, in 2019, I am tasked with writing about 黑社會 Triad, Triad God’s follow-up to his debut seven years ago. It acts as a sequel to NXB: similar thematic underpinnings, Cantonese lyrics, experimental production accented with fashionable electronic music. But by virtue of technological progression and cultural shifts, the significance of these methods has changed. In considering Triad God’s nebulous, transcultural, and cryptic new album, it’s more necessary than ever to consider its context in the decade’s technological and musical trends. It’s true that such an analysis could (and should) be applied to any contemporary release, but such framing seems especially pertinent to 黑社會 Triad, a visionary and timely reaction to the global network’s impact on forward-thinking art, its dissemination and consumption, and the criticism that rises in its wake.
At the dawn of the 2010s, electronic music (despite its historical validity as a tool for exploring and articulating the future) was disjointed in terms of vision. Generally speaking, overarching trends in electronic and hip-hop did not seem reliably indicative of the decade’s musical future, because either methodologies were unchanging or recycled from past eras. A large chunk of music seemed directionless and exhausted.
There were subversive and notable exceptions. Footwork, Jersey/Baltimore club, the PC Music/deconstructed club movement, and vaporwave were all children of the network, each unique for their novelty and undeniable symbiosis with the internet. For a large part, these were styles that, in different and nuanced ways, developed forward momentum by looking backwards. Artists took cultural artifacts and older ideas, manipulating and recycling them into new forms, paradoxically pushing into new territory by incorporating pastiche and exploiting nostalgia. These movements (most obviously in vaporwave) were symptomatic of hauntology, a Derridean framework popularized and further developed by the late blogger/cultural theorist Mark Fisher.
Triad God, because of his association with the now tragically defunct label Hippos in Tanks, fell somewhere in this hauntological camp, but with the added nuance of an identity informed by his Southeast London upbringing and Chinese/Vietnamese background. Like Yung Lean (a friend of the late Barron Machat, who founded Hippos in Tanks), part of Triad God’s allure on NXB was his interpolation of hip-hop from afar, his art seeming like a reaction to the global capitalist onslaught of American culture. But he took this a step further by speaking almost exclusively Cantonese over Palmistry’s instrumentals. The result was a work that utilized a similar conceptual approach as the genres noted above, but also subtly addressed the fetishization readily apparent in some of these new genres (most obviously in vaporwave/cloud rap, which Birkut brilliantly outlines in TMT’s NXB review).
Despite their fashionability and promise during the first half of the 2010s, these new microcosms (and their scenes/artists) either faded in popularity, became a meme, or were profitably appropriated, snuffed out almost as quickly as they arose. In part because the potential of these movements were never fully realized, the decade entered a feedback loop wherein the avant-garde either became an afterthought, was written off as pretentious, or was otherwise abandoned (or mistaken) for pastiche or kitsch in a music culture unwilling or unable to find cohesion in an age of hyper-accessibility. Instead of innovation, there emerged paralysis in the face of cultural overproduction and information overload.
With 黑社會 Triad, we encounter something of a rebuttal to such a disheartening trend and perhaps even hope for the upcoming decade. Triad God toys with the itch to categorize and consider quality, obscuring his intent and eschewing convention for immediacy and even intimacy. The album offers fewer answers than questions, which is vital in that it allows for a space where the significance of global commodification, identity, and transcultural permutations of art can be more readily witnessed and considered.
That Triad God saturates his album with a non-English language is of no small import, for it offers a challenge to the hegemony of Western culture and the capitalist means of dissemination on which it relies. Further, consider the fetishization of Chinese logograms and imperialism, and Triad God’s use of Cantonese (on an album that will fall on the ears of many Western listeners) begins to carry more consequential weight. As a unilingual American who has never lived in a non-English speaking country, it’s difficult for me to grasp the feeling of being accosted by American culture, but perhaps America feels inaccessible and exclusionary. Listening to Triad puts me in that space of inaccessibility, repositioning me as the cultural outsider
Given that NXB was laced with vulgarity and that his FACT Magazine “freestyle” was really just this song, I assume that 黑社會 Triad might contain similar lyrical content. It’s not entirely clear from my perspective, but “Gway Lo,” for instance, most likely refers to “gweilo 鬼佬,” a term that loosely translates to “ghost man” or “foreign devil” and can be used in both a derogatory sense and as a general (though not necessarily disrespectful) descriptor for foreigners. Paired with the refrain “Yo, yo/ Rapping is a lifestyle/ You know what the fuck I’m saying,” the track holds a mirror to the dominance of English in music at large and cryptically signals an awareness of who might be listening.
Triad God’s voice is only half of the form, however. Palmistry’s variegated production styles are part of the reason 黑社會 Triad remains genre-less or, more appropriately, a challenge to the very notion of genres, which are sometimes a necessity for clarity and description, but often reinforce the previously outlined ethnocentric feedback loop within Western culture. Instead, Palmistry rejects any one stylistic referent, opting instead to fuse together many styles and ideas. Like NXB before it, 黑社會 Triad contains tinges of grime and dancehall (“Gwan Ye Gong,” “Chinese New Year”), but many of the instrumentals here are cinematic flourishes, sometimes accented with gu zheng instruments and vocal samples. The most triumphant moments are when Palmistry’s sound and Triad God’s voice mesh into one, as on “So Pay La,” when his vocals are manipulated via stereo spread, pitch-shifting, and delay, as if his words are decaying as soon as he speaks. It’s a contrast to the rhythm we expect to be present alongside vocals; instead of percussion, Triad God’s words tend to follow the mood of each soundscape, and his mournful inflections often float toward nothing, short whimpers cut from dialogues we’re only half-invited to listen in on. With no narrative content readily apparent (e.g. on “Babe Don’t Go” and its reprise, “BDG”), we can either choose to imagine the significance of the words — whether we comprehend them or not — in our own lives or to imagine nothing at all.
And sometimes that’s all we have: the realization that we experience art as part of our own personal narrative, the very means through which art becomes part of a larger historical portrait. We live in an era when inequality, climate destruction, and political instability render the task of considering the future as it relates to our present condition daunting. Cancelling the future is an understandable reaction in the wake of uncertainty and indecision, but not a desirable one. If we are to change the future, then (as Mark Fisher once said) we must invent it.
While 黑社會 Triad does not overtly concern itself with the future, it does embolden the notion that art can radically break from convention and provide a space for conceptual exploration. Perhaps now more than ever, we should undertake an effort to get the most out of art, to reposition ourselves and fully experience alternative forms, with all the joy and sorrow and everything else those forms might impart. 黑社會 Triad is an opportunity for just that: a harbinger for music less informed by content than context and experience, a work that interpolates the present by opening the desire to consider our own condition and embrace new apparitions of possibility.