Shang-Chi and the Soundtrack That Defined It, by Sarah Snyder
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
My first viewing of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings took place in a shady Kentucky drive-in theater. I could only hear snippets of dialogue for most of the film. But while I couldn’t hear anything else, the soundtrack, brash and emphatic, came through loud and clear.
The soundtrack became my guide to the movie. I knew when the characters were in danger, when to laugh, when to cry. The accompanying album, Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings: The Album, created its own powerful narrative of family ties, cultural representation, and finding home.
Most people understand the importance of Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings: it’s Marvel’s first film about an Asian American superhero, featuring an insanely star-studded cast full of Asian leads and an Asian-dominated ensemble.
Simu Liu stars as Shang-Chi, a skilled martial arts fighter who struggles to come to terms with his past once it collides with his present. The film deals with racism, family, and cultural identity as well as an equal balance of wit and wisdom—a welcome surprise after the many questionable decisions Marvel has made concerning Asian representation.
Shang-Chi's first appearance was in comic form as a "kung fu master" with decades of racist stereotype baggage. Although they’ve since had good intentions, Marvel has still made some questionable choices. Some comic characters were given cop-out arcs that reeked of an aversion to the subject of race, while others were whitewashed altogether to avoid stereotypes.
This movie, however, is a step in the right direction. Marvel uses witty and bantering dialogue to acknowledge their past mistakes, and selected a cast full of vibrant Asian characters. But the true gem of their latest blockbuster comes in the form of its accompanying album: Shang Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings: The Album.
The 18-song tracklist was created by Sean Miyashiro and his company 88rising, a music company full of Asian and Asian American talent. The album is filled with a variety of genres, tones, and musicians that deserve just as much attention as the film’s acting stars, if not more—and most of the songs aren’t even in the film.
Act Up caught my attention during the movie since it introduces the viewers to an adult Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu. The unique intro—a slow, unnerving string melody—speeds up to match a strong beat drop that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
In the first ten seconds of the song, I was hooked. That snippet led me to pull out my phone, mentally fight the terrible cell signal slowing down Spotify, and download the entire album while the rest of the moviegoers watched on.
88rising's own Rich Brian and hip-hop duo EARTHGANG collaborate to make the song sound like how a god complex feels—the confident rapping, orchestral melody, and varied percussion can only leave you feeling powerful. It's heavy on the bass and light on the meaningful lyrics (and that's perfectly fine by me). The rest of the album certainly has its fair share of evocative songs that are sprinkled with references to Asian culture and Asian-American experiences.
88rising musician NIKI comments on Diamonds + And Pearls by DPR IAN, DPR LIVE, and peace, “They’re literally just talking about tea,” she says. “But it was such a cool way to pay tribute to Asian-American culture. I've never heard a song that explicitly talks about tea in a cool and almost menacing way.”
Run It, featuring DJ Snake, Rick Ross, and Rich Brian, has a similar vibe, and was used in the movie for the first genuine fight sequence. Sean Miyashiro, founder of 88rising, worked closely with the film’s director Destin Daniel Cretton on this scene. They went back and forth between the song and fight to build a powerful audiovisual experience.
The song’s pre-chorus swiftly builds up overwhelming energy right before the drop; it subverts expectations with an anti-drop, an instrumental chorus filled only by bass and percussion. This creates a hollow chorus that heightens the tension and drama.
The movie combines bass-heavy songs with an orchestral soundtrack that mimics the film’s cultural synthesis. Musicians infuse the classical soundtrack common in superhero films with traditional Chinese-inspired melodies.
The combination makes it clear that they are exploring and proudly representing the blend of Asian and Western cultures. This decision, reminiscent of the Black Panther soundtrack’s blend of Western music and African beat-heavy hip-hop, makes the soundtrack thrilling yet culturally powerful.
Every Summertime is one of the many songs on the album that doesn’t end up in the film, yet still deserves mainstream attention. Performed by Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI, the song is a feel-good tune recounting the feeling of falling in love. It was released almost a month prior to the film and the music video, which takes place in an Asian grocery store, was met with overwhelming appreciation.Many took note of the important role Asian American representation played in the video and commented on how the song felt like home. 88rising's comment on the video reads: "Thank you for allowing us to create a love letter to our family.”
Not only is Shang-Chi a tale of redemption and finding home, but its accompanying soundtrack is a multicultural fount of creativity and representation.Underrated musical gems like Rich Brian, NIKI, and the audiovisual collective DPR have been underrated by the mainstream for far too long.
As 88rising wrote on NIKI’s music video for “Every Summertime,” “This is not just a soundtrack of a movie, these are the songs of our life, songs of our love, and a story that is still being written."