Japanese culture and hip-hop have a long relationship, from the genre’s mid-90s kung-fu obsession to Kanye’s mid-oughts evocation of Japanese pop art up through its current commingling in the very production of Drake’s ubiquitous “Hotline Bling.” The Chicago emcee Sir Michael Rocks has always been a nerd, but in his new video “In My Mode” he goes the full cosplay: it’s essentially a three-minute homage to modern shonen anime. The first half is a back-alley brawl, all close-ups of eyes and stylized violence, recalling Akame Ga Kill and Sword Art Online. The rematch takes place in an open field, and is a lot more Dragonball Z, at least until (spoiler?) Mikey pulls out an uzi.
I think most prominently, the track itself is pretty fire, a stuttering, black-light affair. Sir Michael Rocks is an interesting dude. He first emerged in the mid-oughts as part of the Cool Kids, whose early singles were trunk-rattlers meant to be listened to on headphones. Alongside Chuck Inglish, they trafficked in endless punchlines and minimalist, throwback beats that managed to feel contemporary, thanks in large part to rap’s otherwise low-rent production aesthetic at the time. (It was all Weezy tapes.)
Last year, Mikey re-emerged with the solo effort Banco, which was as dense and abrasive as a Kit or Ratking record. Mikey’s always been a beat-forward emcee—that is, his verses largely feeling in thrall to the beat—and it had similarly warped, becoming scattered and alien where it had once been engineered for the rap-along.
This year’s Populair EP builds on that record’s successes, but is a little more fun, and it’s perhaps because of those pulls from Japanese culture. Second track “Come Outside” takes a melancholy loop from the first Resident Evil, and “Perfect” has an unexpected drop from Street Fighter. The result splits the difference between his party-making early stuff and the abstract reinvention of Banco.