Like it or not Das Racist, the hip hop group behind infectious irritation ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’, are an essential notch in the modern era of rap. Through their two mixtapes and one album they brought a fresh voice and a fresh perspective to a genre that was already revolutionising itself for the current era. The two MC’s, Vicky ‘Kool A.D’ Vazquez and Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri, created raps with unconventional flows and a literary invective. Blended in with obscure cultural metaphors, stoner humour and a sprinkling of irreverence Das Racist were, for a moment, the world’s coolest band.
However, looking back now, their most lasting quality and important legacy may be the way they talked about their own mixed cultural heritage. What Das Racist did was take the usual outsider status prevalent in all rap and add texture by their own unconventional family trees. Two personally resonant tracks from this oeuvre are ‘Who’s that? Brooown!’ and ‘Shorty said’. Two tracks with a high satirical take on being brown (or not white) in modern America.
Two solo mixtapes later, and now his first standalone LP, and it seems Heems is still mulling over the issue. Here on Eat, Pray, Thug Heems talks long and seriously about his relationship with his race and his country. It’s not the only issue tackled on these tracks but it is its predominant theme. Even the humour Heems previously utilised so well has been sanctioned so as not to ruin the message.
Songs like ‘Flag shopping’ and ‘Patriot Act’ are exemplary riffs on what he calls “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap”. Here Heems is angry, scared and confused. Even a track like ‘So NY’ which is ninety per cent swag can’t help but come back to the albums main focus playing lines like ‘I’m about my family and money like the mafia/ bruh/ I’m still with your family at the opera’ against ‘I had to leave my home they kept calling me Osama/ Had to leave my home cuz of drones and Obama’.
It was often levelled against Das Racist, and Heems especially, that for all their knowledge they weren’t the best rap artists. While Heems has certainly improved since then it would be wrong in a review to claim that every line here is perfect. Occasionally what Heems intends to be laconic comes out as lethargic, other times you can’t help but feel that he’s let the words control him rather than the other way round. Luckily these instances are rare and the rest of the time he’s equally rhythmic and eloquent.
Musically the majority of the songs are made up of clip-clops and bleep-bloops that land somewhere between minimalist trap music, electronica and cloud rap. Take an example like ‘Al Q8da’ that’s deceptively simple, in its way even generic, but its solid beat burns into the track making it an essential listen.
‘Jawn Cage’ opens with a euphoric post-rock riff before straying into a steady clap beat that plays into the background of one of Heems most aggressive flows on the album. This is Heems rapping, like really rapping, and it’s great. Occasionally the music defies all conventionalisation like on the spoken word finisher ‘Patriot Act’ that sounds like a Brooklyn cops funeral shambling its way through a Hindu funk.
Unfortunately there are low points here as well; ‘Flag shopping’ has a great message but falls between the cracks of 00’s backbeat and Hot Sugar style tinkerings. ‘Pop song’ does its job too well, in that it really is a tasteless piece of nothing that any artist could have produced and probably is being produced on a hundred Fruityloops right now.
However, this is an album that subtly culminates in quality. There is nothing wrong with the first half but there’s a massive jump in execution and style around the halfway mark with the Dev Hynes featured ‘Home’. Listening to a track like this you’re wondering why Heems isn’t this good all the time. It doesn’t even rely on his American rhetoric, instead this is something like a love song, and it’s beautiful.
It may take a couple of listens but Eat, Pray, Thug is a brilliant album from a man who sits outside the rapping convention. Like him this is an album that is cool and brash and battling demons. It is not perfect and certainly lacks the polish of other recent great rap records like RTJ2 or Danny Brown’s Old. However it does mark a distinct landmark in Heems’ development as an artist. Without forsaking what got him here in the first place he has opened up in style and ability. The dialogue here may not be completely new but Heems’ particularly stamp makes it worth listening to.