At 20-years-old, Lexie Liu is one of several young faces of the burgeoning mainstreaming of hip-hop in China. With a hypnotic blend of ambient tunes and woozy beats, she’s risen to prominence through her dedication to melodic rap, relayed through songs like “Sleep Away” and “Nada.” Last year, she rose to prominence through her appearance on the popular competition show The Rap of China, where she landed in fourth place, ending the year by signing with 88rising. She’s back this week with a new single, “Hat Trick,” and the announcement of her upcoming 2030 album, kicking off 2019 in a big way.
“Last year, I was more focused on the domestic stuff that was going on,” Liu tells Billboard. “This year, it will be a starting point for my music and my work with 88 here, in a more international market.”
Born and raised in Hunan, China, Liu is bilingual and incorporates both Mandarin and English into her songs just as she blends different sonic styles, heavily emphasizing the R&B leanings in her songs. She sees herself as a bridge of sorts. “I feel there’s a need to combine these two languages, and I hope that can make people feel that Mandarin is a beautiful language. And make them want to know more about this culture,” she says.
She also expresses a desire to show Chinese audiences how hip-hop is more complex than perceptions of it may typically be. “In the Chinese market, people are getting more and more open minded to different genres of music, like hip-hop just started last year,” she says. “People are starting to love it, to be precise.” By introducing smoother rap styles and incorporating a variety of genres, Liu’s brand of hip-hop is built to be more accessible, but she recalls facing criticism for it while she was on The Rap of China. “‘Oh, she’s just singing pop songs.’ That’s not how that works,” she declares. “But after [that Rap of China] season, there were more rappers that started to do more melodic and sounds friendlier to the ears stuff. People are more and more open to it and there were a couple hit songs that were melodic rap, and I’m happy to see that too.”
The relationship between China, and Asia in general, with hip-hop is complex based on the genre originating among black artists in the States, grown out of socio-economic and racial tensions. Liu doesn’t shy away from this, and believes that Chinese hip-hop won’t become truly authentic until people “understand the whole hip-hop thing varies from time to time too. We cannot talk about selling dope and stuff in China, cause we’ve never done that. Nobody’s actually doing it [who is] rapping there. So sometimes we need to avoid to talk about certain topics that are not true. Maybe switch it to a different point of view, and more closer to life that people are living in.”
Personally, Liu draws from her life and her favorite fiction for inspiration. The soulful “Hat Trick” is inspired by the prologue of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and features quotes from the iconic cautionary tale about the American dream, including the rephrased “The girl really worth having won’t wait for anybody.” Time and science-fiction are particular creative inspirators for Liu, who quickly responds with the insider wink-wink phrase “42” as the answer to the universal question after declaring Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as another major influence. Her music videos regularly incorporate futuristic elements in them as well. “I’m obsessed with the conception of time,” she admits. “Cause it makes everything change and take it to somewhere that people wouldn’t know until they’re there. So it gives me a lot of space to play with imagination.”
But though her music and videos are space for her to explore her creativity and imagination, Liu’s also intensely grounded, and uses her career as a way to try and rectify gender disparity that she sees in the music world around her. “It is a very male dominated industry, and people always have more strict and harder standards on women, especially celebrities and rappers,” she says. One of a handful of female rappers to rise to prominence through The Rap of China, Liu says all of them are aware of their role as pioneers. “We’re trying to show that not only guys can do that, we can probably do that too, united together.”
Liu says she thinks her less aggressive style of hip-hop is seen dismissively partially because she’s a woman, as neither her sound nor her looks match the idea of what a female rapper should be. “Because I’m a girl and because I use a lot of melodic stuff, a lot of audiences they will feel like I’m not rapping,” she says about feedback she’s heard. “And a little bit of weird comments on my boobs. ‘Oh, they’re so flat.’ Cause female rappers are,” she pauses to wave her hand in a curve, “You know?”
Though Liu’s parents want her to go back to college — she left New York University after her first semester to pursue her passion — she’s not remotely ready to be done with her musical career at a time when both Chinese and Western audiences are becoming more open to more diverse music that blends languages, cultures, and her musical leanings. “I’m still trying to mix these elements together so people can see something that they’ve never seen before. That’s where I’m going,” she says.
Liu’s 2030 will be released on Feb. 1.