Release Date: November 14, 2012
Released five months after his group Das Racist’s first foray into sold-in-stores, all-samples-cleared, album-oriented rap, Heems’ debut solo mixtape appeared in January as a much-welcome mess. Named Nehru Jackets after both the rapper’s remarkably thoughtful Tumblr and the South Asian formal wear, it offered a vivid, 25-track portrait of contemporary Queens. Even when the man born Himanshu Suri started to ramble a bit, producer Mike Finito kept the project on point, his production evoking the sound of music as it’s heard echoing from cars stopped at red lights, drawing on everything from New York boom-bap to shoegaze to Bollywood.
Although it retains that catholic approach to sound and genre, the follow-up, Wild Water Kingdom, is more informed by the sound of rap on the Internet than in any IRL locale. Finito produces three tracks, incorporating both soul horns and some real patois from “Mercy” toaster Fuzzy Jones, but Seattle-based Lil B collaborator Keyboard Kid also contributes a trio of beats, alongside production from Beautiful Lou on “Riding through the Jungle” and B. Official on “WWK Intro,” constituting Heems’ first forays into the more stoned sounds of so-called “cloud rap.”
As for the title, even after Rihanna’s recent Saturday Night Live performance and Azealia Banks’s “Atlantis” video introduced aquatic Internet culture to a wider, perhaps unsuspecting audience in the days prior to Wild Water Kingdom‘s release, it’s a bit of a misnomer to interpret this tape as Heems’ version of #seapunk: When he touts his waviness, he’s thinking more Max B than Lil Internet. New York rapper/producer Le1f — whose Dark York remains the strongest release from Heems’ Greedhead label — provides the wettest beat here, with a bubbling bass that almost replicates the sensation of ears popping. But that’s also the moment when Heems describes the titular theme park as the place to be when the whole web comes crashing down.
Compared to Nehru Jackets, though, the subject matter errs on the lighter side. No songs have seriously provocative titles like “Juveniles Detained in Guantanamo Bay,” and there’s nothing as immediate as the police-brutality bromide “NYC Cops.” “Soup Boys” works through a first verse referencing people throwing stones at mosques, but the chorus has our man haunting a bar “trying to find a pretty drone to take home tonight.”
If that bar is in a certain part of Brooklyn or a suitably hip neighborhood in another suitably hip city, “Third Thing” is the song most likely to soundtrack that attempted pick-up. Over a Crookers beat that dabbles in light dubstep, Heems offers some of his best-written raps, stacking syllables — “Ain’t enough to be boozing / Even when bottles is oozing / I’m choosing views with a pool and popping pills till I’m drooling” — as he explains what he means by the song title. About the time these flows grow tiresome, he begins free-associating, juxtaposing disparate geographic worlds and demographically diverse influences: “I’m Papa Shango, the godfather D’Lo / ‘Who’s that brown?’ Why bother? / Weezer, Werner / Herzog, Hertz / U-Haul rider,” goes one chain.
Despite a handful of highlights like “Medium Green Eyes,” on which Heems is content tossing off some Wheel of Fortune–style before-and-afters (“Indian chief / Chief Kiefer Sutherland / From the motherland”), while Greedhead crooner SAFE and beatsmith Steel Tipped Dove steal the show with an oblique R&B meditation that never quite arrives at its destination. (There’s also “Adina Howard,” which is, yes, a love song to Adina Howard.) Ultimately, Wild Water never hits as hard as its predecessor, and can’t match it in terms of either focus or breadth.
In that loose, less ambitious vein, the grand finale, a freestyle recorded on the Combat Jack radio show, is one of the tape’s most enjoyable and satisfying moments, a ’90s-style radio riff anchoring a project that seems locked into the sounds of 2012. The track, which features Heems rapping over beats chosen on the fly by an uncredited Just Blaze, gestures back to an era where these sort of tapes included not only original songs, but random odds and ends. Over four quick minutes, he tells throwback Queens stories and brags about his caviar, then cracks up the other guys in the room with a line about spoiled white kids on Nanny 911, before stopping everyone short with bars about how “when the Towers came down, they blamed it on the brown.” For the first time Wild Water Kingdom, Heems is rapping like he’s trying to impress people, and unsurprisingly, he succeeds.