As is customary for a music superstar to do in 2022, VannDa cleaned up her Instagram page as it came time to build anticipation for her new album “Skull 2 (Season 1).” The 25-year-old rapper deleted (or archived) all of the content that had been browsed by his adoring 572,000 subscribers, but then posted a single post to his feed: a candid collection of photos and videos of himself taking depth, well-deserved naps.
After all, it’s hard work to be the pride and joy of Cambodian popular music. “There is definitely pressure and I have worked harder. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done before,” VannDa recounts later. NME. “It’s the first time I’ve operated at this level…I’m excited even though there’s pressure, and I’m excited to show the fans what’s going on.”
Last Friday, he did just that with “Skull 2 (Season 1),” the first half of the sequel to his 2020 debut “$kull the Album.” If life is a movie, as the saying goes, VannDa’s current Imperial phase is more like a TV show, and this project its first batch of 15 episodes. And in typical ‘second album’ fashion, these productions are polished yet unpredictable, these songs captivating – and at times heartbreaking – in their honesty.
The way VannDa openly reflects on her rocky journey from shaved coconut salesman to celebrity rapper on “Skull 2 (Season 2)” would be remarkable in any setting. But his determination to openly address mental health issues – rapping about depression and anxiety from the opening track, “Sometimes” – is particularly remarkable considering how his profile has exploded in 2021.
VannDa was already one of Cambodia’s most exciting contemporary artists when he released the song “Time To Rise” last March. A collaboration with Master Kong Nay, one of Cambodia’s most revered musicians, ‘Time To Rise’ weaved the legend’s resonant vocals and traditional Khmer instrumentation with a nodding hip-hop beat, ad libs VannDa’s smooth and confident bars about heritage, history and excellence. Its music video, shot amid sacred treasures and artifacts on display at the National Museum of Cambodia, has racked up 94 million views on YouTube to date.
“The Cambodian people have lost so much,” says VannDa soberly, referring to the Khmer Rouge and the destruction the genocide inflicted on the country’s art and culture. “I want to show both the Cambodian people and the world that Cambodian music deserves to be on the map, and that culture is a treasure that we must protect. We didn’t have the chance to do that in the past, and now I want to protect him.
NME met VannDa in June on Zoom, the star buried himself in a hoodie, fiddling with sunglasses that he didn’t take off during the hour-long interview. Speaking mostly Khmer with a smattering of English, he sits alongside Laura Mam – co-founder and CEO of his Baramey Production label, and pop star in her own right – who translates his answers and occasionally NME‘s questions.
Baramey’s roster has come together to help VannDa make “Skull 2 (Season 1)” a reality. The label had initially tried to work on the album by sending files back and forth, but the process proved disjointed and unsatisfactory. So the whole team decamped to a villa in Kep province, where they hunkered down for a two-week album camp.
“I want to show both the Cambodian people and the world that Cambodian music deserves to be on the map”
“It was my first time working with a lot of different people,” VannDa recalls. “I’ve always been a loner doing everything myself, including producing, mixing and mastering.” At Villa de Skull, as they came to call it, producers, singers, and songwriters split into three different stations, which VannDa navigated between. As a decision-making “mastermind”, he took a liking to curation and arrangement. “It allowed me to know myself much better because I was in an environment where I had to question myself by knowing which parts [of the music] I really wanted.”
And what has VannDa learned about himself? “That I’m the kind of artist who’s willing to learn anything…I’ll try anything and that made me a fearless artist in the process.”
He adds: “It’s more than music, because I talk about my real experiences. There are no lies in the album. I am truthful and feel motivated by telling the truth.
“Skull 2 (Season 1)” makes room for bluster and boastfulness, like the singles “Bok Kalo” and “Catch Me If You Can.” But VannDa wants you to get the hard truths first: The project is loaded up front with moody bangers filled with real VannDa talk about sacrifice, betrayal and angst.
Recording these dark and intense songs in the quiet surroundings of Villa de Skull gave the songs “a new flavor” – what VannDa calls a “dark freshness”. Nowhere is this more evident than on the pair of songs ‘Day Dreamer’ and ‘Night Thinker’. On the old track, VannDa recalls 2016, when he left his home in Sihanoukville for Phnom Penh to pursue his musical dreams. “I dreamed of another version of myself that felt no pressure and was just happy every day – a fantasy version of myself.”
“I will try anything and it has made me a fearless performer in the process”
And on that last song, VannDa reached the big city. He already misses his mother and father, and big existential questions have begun to weigh on him. “I needed to think about the meaning of life and what it was all about.” As a guitar cries and mournful strings resound, VannDa vows to make her painful departure worth it for the sake of her parents:I don’t know when / I could relieve you of your struggles / Let you get the rest you deserve / I can’t afford to be a coward / You must be tired of giving me time / This is it essay that I conjured .”
VannDa calls “Skull 2 (Season 1)” a “university of mental health” – a term that started out as a joke but solidified into a serious description of the album. On ‘$kull the Album’ in 2020, “I was reacting to my own mental health and talking about how to deal with it at this very moment,” he says.
“While in ‘Skull 2’ I feel like I was able to complete the ‘college’ part, where you come away with lessons on how to deal with difficult people and situations – how to deal with pain and life. I feel like a teacher at a university, teaching people how to deal with their deep emotional issues!”
Although ‘Skull 2 (Season 1)’ is now out, the hard work has only just begun: later this year VannDa will embark on a tour of Cambodia and then release ‘Skull 2 (Season 2)’ . After gaining an international following with “Time To Rise” and landing an unprecedented collaboration with Thai rappers F.HERO, 1MILL and SPRITE on the single “Run The Town” earlier this year, VannDa is aiming to go global – whatever it takes.
“I’m sure there are people watching my steps,” he said. “Many artists have dreamed of going international. It’s a long-time dream, a shared dream. The road I am on right now is strewn with pitfalls and difficult to build. But I’m working hard because I intend to build a smoother road for artists after me to travel easier and faster… This is for my people, my country. I want to represent on behalf of Cambodia.
VannDa’s “Skull 2 (Season 1)” is now available via Baramey Production