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Review: Heems Confronts His (And Hip-Hop’s) Dualities on the Surprisingly Mournful ‘Eat Pray Thug’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 10, 2015
Label: Megaforce

Why does it seem like only the best bands break up? Perhaps because the weight of what they made was too great for their shoulders: witness Sleater-Kinney reeling from The Woods, an emotionally damaging experience as they pushed themselves to their physical limits with Dave Fridmann at the helm. Or the Knife coming off of Shaking the Habitual, a dark synth-pop inversion, avant garde rabbit hole plunge, and feminist manifesto all in one double-length operetta. Or Death Grips, whatever the fuck they were doing.

Das Racist didn’t just innovate musically — though there’s a whole as yet un-had conversation about a sample palette that included “Scenario,” Jay Z, “Return to Innocence,” and synth-dancehall worth dubbing “Fake Patois” — they were the first “brown” rappers of note to enter into the largely black-and-white conversation of race in rap. Many considered the chief question of this group (rappers Kool A.D. and Heems with hypeman Dapwell) to be Whether or Not They Are Serious, a roundtable they took in stride with a song like “hahahaha jk?” whose very real beat by onetime Jay Z employee Boi-1da was probably paid for with not-joking money. Appropriation is a key to hip-hop and a threat to invisible cultures. Humor is a necessary ambassador to seriousness and dangerous grounds for artistic dismissal. The real question is if these contradictions the group embodied could be resolved.

Nope. After initial head-scratching for DR’s monosyllabic debut single/viral litmus test “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” they won over the Rap Internet with two mixtapes, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, which displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of past and present hip-hop, freestyling over Ghostface’s “Nutmeg” and referencing everything from The Office to Egyptian Lover, while mocking shorties who mistake them for “Puerto Rican Cousins” and lusting for them anyway. Then they made a Real Album that you can hold in your hand, Relax, and just like Real Rappers, people preferred the mixtapes and cooled on them. Despite the beginnings of a follow-up in the can, the trio split up.

“Imagine if a group like Das Racist was around for five, even ten years? That shit would be corny as fuck. We were a punk-rap group that exploded and imploded,” Himanshu Suri told Village Voice, and that settles that. What sucks is that they were much more than a “punk-rap” group; they used their unique position in hip-hop racially, financially, intellectually — and let’s never forget comedically — to lampoon complacency on all sides of the conversation, which wasn’t just limited to their music. (Two eternal words: “Deborah, chill.”)

So after two mixtapes that were an absolute riot if lacking proper hooks and tag-team play with the more laconic Kool A.D. (who rolled his own just fine on Not O.K. and Word O.K.), here’s that promised not-punk album. But you’d never know by the title Eat Pray Thug is where Suri soberly corrals his political side that was glanced at on “NYC Cops” and “Fake Patois” but couched in humor to pad out a full listen. Eat Pray Thug is 11 songs in 40 minutes with the most emotional moment, “Flag Shopping,” up soon at track five, paving the way for the intense trilogy that closes: “Al Q8a,” “Suicide by Cop,” and “Patriot Act.”

But first the fun. The opening “Sometimes” stretches the old “Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick” standby, connecting the DJ Khaled chestnut “No New Friends” and the Wrens’ “I’ve Made Enough Friends” (which isn’t even on The Meadowlands, Christ), and even in post-“poptimist” (yurgh) 2015 it feels like no one else can do it but him. But the either/or setup (“Sometimes I got the shit / Sometimes I’m lacking it”) sets the tone for Heems’ most significant theme: “How to live life when my life all dualities.” Even at its silliest, this album’s a love letter to NYC — recorded on a self-imposed “exile” to Bombay after breaking up with his girlfriend and his group — that never loses sight of his privilege, and reaches out to most mostly people who are not him, a rare act for a solo rap debut, especially on top of beats as Drake-y as “Damn, Girl” or “Pop Song (Games).”

“Al Q8a” revives the creepy-crawly synth meows from Clipse’s “Chinese New Year” for his scariest inversion yet: If Mobb Deep can appropriate Scarface, why can’t a South Asian brag that his guns are from the Taliban? The question rips open a scab that wasn’t healed ten years ago on M.I.A.’s Arular. He draws a line straight from a foreign symbol of terror to another frightening examination of power on “Suicide By Cop,” complicated by typical asides like the awesome boast: “I’m like the brown man equivalent of the video from ‘Woo Hah!’” On “Patriot Act” he invokes a fake patois himself to repeatedly yelp, “Babylon policing the people,” rhyming “pirates pillage” with “killing civilians” and nearly evoking System of a Down with the pairing “government drones / cookie-cutter clones.” Then an Indian flute takes up the background and he plainly recalls the World Trade Center collapsing in front of his eyes, and then having to switch high schools for a month while his own became a triage to treat the injured.

But the centerpiece is “Flag Shopping,” which reports how 9/11 really affected him: “They’re staring at our turbans / They’re calling them rags / They’re calling them towels.” The lifelong city-proud 29-year-old was plainly confused by the sudden uptick in racism: “We sad like they sad.” It shouldn’t be news that there was a lot more to Das Racist than jokes (or “trolling,” a term favored by the kind of white rap critics who deserve to be trolled). But this album uses the medium that Chuck D once famously referred to as “the black CNN” to examine NYC’s broken heart from a far less voiced POV than Jay Z or Woody Allen (and far more directly affected). In many ways, Eat Pray Thug is a prequel to Das Racist, filling in the biographical gaps of a seemingly inscrutable wiseass from when he had to cry before he could laugh.