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SPIN Essentials

Heems, ‘Nehru Jackets’ (Greedhead)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 23, 2012
Label: Greedhead

If you discovered hip-hop during the so-called Golden Age of the late-’80s/early-’90s, Queens still holds an almost mythic quality to this day. Which applies to both the rappers — bigger-than-life rogues like Nas, Mobb Deep, Kool G. Rap, Pharoahe Monch, and Capone-N-Noreaga — and the locale itself, which, if judged by the rhymes about stick-up kids and videos full of dudes standing around fire-belching trash cans, always seemed idyllic in its awful-ness.

The general definition of “Queens rap” came from that sort of thing, which means Nehru Jackets, an eccentric boom-bap mixtape from Queens residents Heems (a.k.a., Himanshu Suri of Das Racist) and producer Mike Finito, probably fails to qualify under such a strict rubric. But that’s a good thing. The off-the-cuff confidence of this free offering — presented by Queens-based nonprofit SEVA NY in support of their campaign against gerrymandering and redistricting — feels like a bleary-eyed character actor strolling through a big-budget crime flick, mucking up all that once-poignant, now-rote “authenticity.” It’s a reminder of what was actually charming about classic Queens rap: Behind the rugged-and-raw signifying, there were weird personalities and a palpable sense of community.

Unlike Das Racist’s 2011 triumph Relax, which felt confrontational in its insularity, Nehru Jackets is an open-hearted, funny, sad, always sincere expression of the-personal-as-political, permeating even the goofiest tracks. “Jason Bourne” basically recounts the plot of The Bourne Identity, but it’s also a clever rewrite of Rick Ross’ “B.M.F.” Heems declares, “I’m Jason Bourne,” who, as a heroic government-trained killer, seen through a foreign-policy lens, is much more of a criminal than any member of the Black Mafia Family. “Thug Handles” is a touching, chubby guy’s lament about eating greasy food; “It’s the Drug I Needed” is the “I do a lot of drugs” song, without the self-destructive pride. Prefaced with a clip of a rhetorical question from Ravi Shankar (“Why not get high on life itself, without using any drugs?”), the track suggests a clean-and-sober ideal that Heems hopes to one day achieve.

Nehru Jackets is a little too long, and fidelity-wise, it sounds like ass, but that’s part of its scruffy appeal. Finito, a longtime Heems cohort (their touching friendship is the topic of the Yuck-sampling “Desi Shoegaze Taiko”), has studied the grit and grime of Illmatic and The Infamous…, and has mastered the Orwellian paranoia of Definitive Jux. He brings these New York rap traditions into the anything-goes Internet era where drums can clip, and keyboards and samples are allowed to screech into the red. A tinny, yammering Marvin Gaye sample on “Juveniles Detained at Guantanamo Bay” sonically implies a post-9/11 sense of everything falling apart, which fits the worldview of a brown MC who realizes he’s a symbol of “terror” for racist idiots enabled by “If you see something, say something” signs.

“NYC Cops,” meanwhile, is a brick-through-the-nearest-window rant about police brutality. As Finito tears apart a Strokes sample, a frayed-voice Heems has his Immortal Technique moment (minus the whole being-an-obnoxious-dick thing), detailing the murders of Michael Stewart, Sean Bell, and dozens of others at the hands of the police. Then there’s “Alien Gonzalez,” which absurdly imagines former Cuban refugee and political cause célèbre Elian Gonzalez “all grown up” as an annoying bro who listens to Daddy Yankee and tries to hook up with girls; Heems, who elsewhere boasts that he’s the “Hindu Ralph Ellison” on “You Have to Ride the Wave,” has created a very Ellisonian reminder that political symbols are regular-ass people too, and sometimes they’re assholes, even if they are part of one of the United States’ most heinous immigration-policy disasters.

Speaking of disasters, there’s fellow Das Racist member Kool A.D.’s own mixtape, The Palm Wine Drinkard, a non-rapped, not-quite-irreverent-enough dance record that proudly does not give a shit. The title track is the instrumental to OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” pretty much unadorned, while the files — a mess of MP3s, M4As, and one WAV — are poorly tagged. The title is stolen from Amos Tutuola’s Nigerian folk tale/modern novella hybrid; that book’s follow-up was My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, known to music nerds for sharing its name with a Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration. So, perhaps there is some commentary here on the willy-nilly embrace of ethnic music? I don’t know, man.

Because while “Fun” actually knocks good and proper (like James Murphy remixing Armand Van Helden), and “Titties Out” at least goes all the way in its homage to Uncle Luke, this mixtape doesn’t even fully commit to the ironic-party-music conceit. Also included is the Drake-like “Girls and Woman,” a kind of cool Clams Casino copy called “Eight Elvises,” and “A Ganglion of Lightning,” which is just a track from Vasquez’s old band Boy Crisis. It’s a half-assed mess, all in the form of a joke that isn’t all that funny, which I guess is what’s supposed to make it funny.

It’s too bad that Heems made a masterful, lo-fi political rap record; otherwise, the cheap thrills of The Palm Wine Drinkard‘s in-quotes “mega-mix” wouldn’t be so unsatisfying. Nehru Jackets, as canny as previous Das Racist releases, hits hard but still finds time to do ridiculous things like hammer the names “Richard Karn” and “Richard Marx” into “Karl Marx”; facilitate killer guest spots from Danny Brown, Lakutis, Action Bronson, and, yes, Kool A.D.; and inexplicably continue Queens’ dystopic hip-hop tradition.