Suboi is definitely the dark horse in the Vietnamese music industry. She has been walking on her path, experimenting with various musical genres, and not conforming to the norms and trends of Vietnamese hip hop. The most important thing about rap and hip-hop is that through lyrics, you can speak your mind. And Suboi, after all, shows she has been mastering the truth, the ugly aspects within the society, and the integrity.
I remember watching her rapping to former US President Barack Obama during his visit to Vietnam, and the video, to everybody’s expectation, became viral. Suboi is remembered by most Vietnamese fans as “the girl who rapped to Obama”. Few people noticed why she stood up at that conference, because she wanted to ask him a question about art and expression, and what a country like Vietnam can do to promote art and their messages globally in the future. This traces back to Suboi’s interviews in which she talked about how censorship in Vietnam and how she has managed to get around it in her early years.
“It’s a big thing here if you say anything bad about [the government] because maybe you’ll just ‘disappear’. Obviously, you can’t say it straight — we’re still too worried to talk openly about the government and politics — so you pretend to write a love song but you have to read between the lines. Otherwise, they’ll ban you” — Suboi said in an interview for The Guardian with Kate Hodal.
Going to America for her first international tour, including a gig in SXSW, Suboi witnessed the difference of freedom in expression and making art, compared to the rigorous “fine customs” that are still existing and becoming ambiguous in Vietnam. She said in an interview with Emily Wilson:
“If you say something too real, it gets a little bit weird. If you say things about money, drugs, and sex, they’re not going to approve — they’re going to censor it. I don’t want to censor myself — this is America, and I can say whatever the fuck I want”.
Lyrically, Suboi chooses a different path compared to fellow rappers at the time. She talks about different aspects of Vietnamese society, about life, philosophy, and sometimes love. In her debut album “Walk”, her first mainstream record, had a lot of English lines in her lyrics. She talked about the future, friendship, and the things she witnessed in her surroundings. Then her second record “Run”, the rapper made deeper experimentation into electronic music, especially trap. However, the album did not gain commercial success compared to the first one. She found herself lost in the middle of the bustling Vietnamese music industry, in which the mass audience prefer ballads and pop over hip-hop and rap. She ventured outside of the country, was made famous by the name “The Queen of Vietnamese Hip-hop”.
After 9 years of experiencing all the ups and downs in her career and personal life, Suboi put out “NO-NÊ”. As the rapper explained “No nê in Vietnamese is being full (after a meal, after some kinds of success), but in English, it’s “none”. Compiling of 10 songs, including 1 dance remix, “NO-NÊ” is a buffet party with different flavors and specialties, as the rapper continues to experiment with various sounds. The self-invention of Suboi over the years through each era can be seen in Missy Elliot, in Christina Aguilera, in even the new generation of female hip-hop artists like Doja Cat or Jhené Aiko. They are examples that are not afraid to go against the trend and ultimately showcase their versatility in music, especially in the way they choose their melody and musical direction. While hip-hop and rap have been brought back in the Vietnamese music scene, somehow taking the forefront position, thanks to the Rap Viet contest (in which Suboi is one of the coaches), Suboi is still seen to be ahead of her time. She chose to rap over funk-pop, industrial pop, PC music, and alternative R&B — taking us all back to her old-school background through the flows, interweaving the artistic use of autotune, which is the first time we have seen in her music.
The album opens with “Công”, a breakthrough industrial pop track with the fuse of futuristic trap and bass, which makes the beats sound more prominent than ever. In “Công”, we can tell that there are still some remains of her previous LP “Run”, as this track plays a role in transitioning between young and wild Suboi into a more mature version of herself. The lyrics echo “I’m a young Vietnamese lady who’s this? / Twenty-five for life, not a cookie-cutter bitch” then she screams “Real Saigonese pop showbiz don’t fit”. “Công” expresses the inner ego in Suboi, as she is going in a different direction than the majority, but most importantly she is doing the things that she wants. In modern parlance, she fosters a “niche” community, in which her followers understand her language, flow, and her messages in every song. For each artist, they have their own development direction for their career, whether to go on making music that they enjoy or doing something that is the same as the rest, so that they can catch up with the trends. But in the end, the most sublime career is not in the numbers, but in being able to freely create arts. That is the thing Suboi owns. If “Công” is a mixture of bombastic sounds then the next track “Cho Không” is a funk-pop track, which does not go along with the whole vibes of the album. However, if this track stands alone, it can make a blast out of itself. The same goes with “N-Sao?”, one of her first tastes for “NO-NÊ”, released in 2018. The special thing about “N-Sao?” is that Suboi created and reimagined the city of Saigon through trivial things in life that only those who have visited and lived in this vibrant city can fathom and sympathize with. “N-Sao?” is also an R&B/trap record, bringing out the fun and quirky side of the rapper. Music in general takes material from life. However, through the lens of the artist, that life shows many different colors. If other male rappers like Binz or Đen Vâu, rap about the world of luxury, bad boys, or sometimes an escape, then the signature of Suboi is Saigon and everything around her that she sees. In “N-Sao?”, she coined the word “Vinja” to talk about women who cover themselves to avoid the UV rays while riding motorbikes on the streets (Vietnamese ninja). When it comes to hip-hop and rap, the stereotypical images are depicted as dark and emo, while with Suboi in “N-Sao?”, it is filled with happiness, brightness, and sometimes touches of laughter or perspective about the current situation of the surrounding environment.
Suboi talks about feminism and women in this album through “Công”, “Sickerrr” and “Lava”. If “Công” is a song that shows real women can do bold things to take control of their lives then “Sickerrr” is the image of women that goes against the social-constructed stigma in Vietnam. She criticizes how society puts women in a lower status than men, making them worship the man that they love or passively wait for her man to make a move. “Nàng công chúa chỉ biết chờ một chàng trai hôn là xong (The princess only knows to wait for a boy to kiss her)”. The term “feminism” no matter how euphemistically used, still refers to efforts to create more equality for women in society. However, in modern Vietnamese society, “feminism” is sometimes interpreted negatively. Many people think that this world is equal and women are trying to be “superior”, wanting to have more control, so they constantly claim equal rights. With Suboi, she embraces feminism among women themselves. She does not directly point at men or tries to oppose them in her lyrics. Women do not try to be like men. Men are not the norm for them to look at. For Suboi, feminism comes from their inner confidence and how they control themselves and their actions. “Sickerrr” is all about confidence and how women’s images evolve through time, then “Lava” is how the rapper uses metaphors and innuendos to discuss sex. For Vietnamese, women talking about sex seems to break the norms. She is happy to receive the “lava” on her lips, which means she is in the most positive and elated state of mind. Suboi reaches the ecstasy of love, sexuality, and femininity. In the outro, she talks about the pain and challenges in life that makes who she is today, “Có khi ta lên xuống, ta xuống lên/Ta lên xuống, xuống lên cũng bình thường” (Sometimes we go up down, down then up, it’s normal after all).
Suboi rarely talks about love in her previous albums. At the moment, it seems like Suboi has embraced enough confidence to write more about her love life, her relationship, and how she defines romance. In “Best Friend” and “Bet on Me”, she expresses the contrasts inside of her about relationships. With “Best Friend”, Suboi draws a picture of the alternate life in which her lover does not exist. Strong and bold as she is, “Best Friend” showcases the vulnerability within a woman who needs someone to treasure her, not someone who falls in and out of love like it is temporary. She wants her lover to treat her like a “best friend, not another girlfriend”, as if you see your partner as a friend, somehow it will retain the longevity of the relationship. In “Bet on Me”, Suboi tells her lover to take a chance on her and join her on this journey of romance as she believes that he is the one. We can tell that Suboi understands herself and her worth, she is ready to make the first move, and to take the lead when it comes to love. How Suboi and her producers (including her husband, Nodey Nguyen) fused Vietnamese traditional sounds into her songs can be seen throughout the album. The prominent examples are “Bet on Me”, “Ngày Lại Ngày” and “Diều”. In the last track “Diều”, the singer sings entirely in autotune, giving away Travis Scott circa SICKO MODE and his collaboration in JACKBOYS’ projects.
The intertwinement of Vietnamese tradition sounds and electro-pop, R&B, and PC Music brings us back to her question to Obama. I believe through the making of “NO-NÊ”, Suboi has found her answer. As long as an artist knows exactly how to master the traditionally distinct traits within their culture and blend them with the current worldwide trends, they will understand how to bridge the world with their arts. “NO-NÊ” is still Suboi, but with maturity and integrity. The length and cohesion of this album make us feel full as the rapper takes us on a journey with ups and downs, with a blend of different musical experimentation. But in the end, the hunger for more makes us feel like this record is “nothing”. I hope that Suboi will not keep us waiting for long to see what she will bring next!
Taste the feels of “NO-NÊ” now!