Text Farhan Fauzi
Update (Friday 4 March ’16): This article has been edited. Contributing Writer Farhan Fauzi had mistakenly named Biggie as the producer behind the yet-to-be-released ‘Start That Thiruvizha’ as it was uploaded onto his SoundCloud — it is actually by Switch Lock Up.
SonaOne, the 27-year-old Kartel wonder boy, had been slowly anticipating the release of his debut Growing Up Sucks – six years in the making. The title alone would leave you expecting a diary of sorts; a narrative of the artiste’s story, how hardships of age have swooned an ambitious rapper from his graffiti-influenced nature as a young boy from riveting France to growing up (pun really intended) in traditional Malaysia, in an encapsulating half-hour experience of a hip hop album. What we do get instead is a collection of carefully constructed songs emulating hits of the past five or so years.
The six-year-long process comes with a rather confusing marketability prospect. Supported by the ever-pervasive Kartel Records, the rollout for Growing Up Sucks hasn’t been the most conventional – the first single ‘No More’ was released three years ago and albeit racking impressive awards, it holds no real benefit towards the anticipation of the album. This is then followed by two other singles, ‘Hakeleh’ and ‘Firefly’ respectively, being released a year after the other. In a market that pushes hip hop, Kartel Records has zero competitors and really nothing to worry about, but SonaOne’s ‘story’ has much to be altered considering the three years that he had already spent ‘growing up’ since his first single was released. Yet we have received nothing from the artiste that is truly personal – what we do have in return are two relatable love songs and the other a braggadocio track that is already the quintessential prerequisite of every rapper.
The story begins with a rather endearing vocal-sampled intro, ‘Sunrise’, a beginning that somewhat persuades you to expect what you intended to hear; his story. The title track follows suit, contrastingly sampling ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’, and immediately he tells you he’s “only 22,” either his opinions on growing up the past five years really haven’t changed at all or the song just seems dated. Though at the very least, it is still an insight into a younger SonaOne Kenobi. The larger portion of the project seems to disregard this seemingly crucial factor, apart from ‘Confirm Ah’, a track on his experience being misunderstood as an artiste in the industry, and ‘Mama’s Boy’, where Sona raps in French and talks about his mother, both of which you’d only reach in the second half of Growing Up Sucks. “Mereka tak tahu,” because you don’t tell them, Sona.
Sonically you wouldn’t get something personal either. The album is incoherent and awfully ordered apart from the first and last song, the unapologetic use of the hook-verse-hook structure becomes too predictable, the crooning is rarely pleasing, the storytelling is absent, Sona’s flows hop from one familiar flow to another based on the beat – and the beats themselves (all produced by himself), although well-established, have no character and are simply all too familiar. The pop sensibilities (and crooning) on ‘Growing Up Sucks’ and ‘No More’ are obviously intended to be singles for radio play. The boom bap persistence of ‘Get Like Me’ begs for a lyrical assault, but Sona again chooses to croon for the second half of the interlude. Within the context given, ‘Hakeleh’, ‘Go Do That’, and ‘Cold’ are out of place in what seems to be his attempt at freshening things ups, despite the second song sampling Drake’s ‘Energy’ with god-awful claps to imitate ‘Turn Down For What?’’s success as a party anthem, in which Switch Lock Up has already missed to mimic with ‘Start That Thiruvizha’. In the way we are going now, it might also be safe to assume that ‘Firefly’ is an attempt for the song to be used in an ad by the airline of the same name.
This is the general feeling of the album; everything is so strategically put together. Every song has its own purpose, market, place, and is constructed based on research on successful songs of the past. Nothing on this album, within the global hip hop realm, is contributing anything new, innovative or unique. Of course, any kid from Subang Jaya would be able to spot SonaOne on a track, but outside of this minuscule hip hop market in Malaysia, Sona chooses to swerve his audience to the safer “I like it because I know it” route – sort of like another Hoodie Allen. The bargain for the lack of personality is definitely the familiarity of it all; SonaOne hits all markets possible with barely any issue, with each having their own favourite song. But what comes with such mathematically produced songs, is that it strays away from the creativity that makes music so precious, and that is exactly what is happening with Growing Up Sucks. What is packaged as a concept album here is nothing more than a compilation of hits released way past its time.