Vava, one of China’s most popular female hip-hop artists, got her international break in 2018 with “My New Swag,” featured on the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack, an incredible song (and video) that Lucas Niewenhuis wrote about here. But before that, and before she left the first season of Rap of China (中国有嘻哈 zhōngguó yǒu xīhā) as a semifinalist — the only woman in the final four — there was her cover (a rewrite, really) of Cambodian-Canadian rapper Honey Cocaine’s 2014 song “Shady Wit Me.” Although it isn’t necessarily part of Vava’s “canon,” it has a YouTube music video as stamp of approval (above), and it demonstrates her flow as well as any of her more well-known songs.
In contrast, in the last few years, Toronto-based Honey Cocaine has walked a completely different path. The independent artist went into a period of low productivity, all but taking a break from songwriting after her most high-profile moment in 2012 — taking a bullet for her friend and collaborator Tyga when the latter was shot at after a concert. Since then, Honey Cocaine has shied away from talking about the deal with Tyga’s label that never came to be — but she has talked about the backlash she continues to face as an Asian rapper in the West.
Vava and Honey Cocaine have little in common except that they’re Asian, they’re female, and they rap. They’re from vastly different places. But whatever her intent, Vava actually does something quite remarkable by covering Honey Cocaine. By drawing attention to an artist so unlike herself in terms of style, Vava finds a new entry point into North American hip-hop.
Her version of “Shady Wit Me” completely rewrites the song, though it keeps the original English hook. Here’s the first part of the first verse, with Honey Cocaine’s original lyrics on the right:
我每天过的都是 fast lane
Wǒ měi tiān guò de dōu shì fast lane
I pass every day in the fast lane // I chase money in the fast lane
Rú nǐ suǒ jiàn shēn jià kāi shǐ fān shí bèi
As you can see, I’m worth 10 times as much now // I was already balling when the cash came
Man 我在乎从来不是 live fame
Man wǒ zài hū cóng lái bu shì live fame
Man, fame was never what I cared about // Now he tryna holla but I’m laughing
Pái chú yì yǐ dàn wǒ cóng bù mái fú shéi
I don’t mess with haters but I also never backstab // Cause ain’t no nigga finna trade my last name
Fuck talk shit I ain’t never lie // Fuck boss shit, I ain’t never lie
Studio 不想工作I ain’t never try
Studio bù xiǎng gong zuò I ain’t never try
In the studio, don’t wanna work, and I ain’t never try // 416 on my game till I die
123 nǐ men kàn wǒ zuò dà
123, watch me as I make it big // Came to the money and it came wit a price
Then the English hook hits and something about Vava’s heavily articulated, almost angular Sichuanese-Chinese accent cuts into the words more distinctly than Honey Cocaine’s liquid original.
Vava — and Honey Cocaine — must go to extra lengths to work in hip-hop. Claims of cultural appropriation (often then accompanied by explanations of why comparatively ethnically homogenous nations do what they do) will continue to follow them. And female artists, in particular, constantly reminded that they’re hustling in a boys’ club, will have to shoulder that set of intersecting burdens, too.
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