Music

Das Racist: Relax

Where once they might have been subtle in criticising the predomination of pop culture, Relax shows Das Racist wanting to now be a part of it.


Das Racist

Relax

Label: Greedhead
US Release Date: 2011-09-13
UK Release Date: 2011-09-13
Amazon
iTunes

In 2008, the unknown Das Racist suddenly burst onto the hip-hop scene (as well as the blogosphere) in a big way with what became an Internet meme: the addictive “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”. The tune was a hit of sorts in cyberspace largely because, as with anything that goes viral, it seemed like a joke, the kind of thing you would forward onto friends who appreciated LOLcats humour. For those who missed it, the conceit of the track was that you had a bunch of Indian-American rappers (which, unfortunate as this may seem, seemed like a gag in and of itself) talking on their cell phones to each other while they were high on weed in a Queens fast food franchise and had no clue where the other party was, even though they were in the same restaurant. That, in and of itself, was funny in a Cheech and Chong stoner sort of way, but then there was the paradoxically catchy and annoying lyrics, which repeated over and over, “I’m at the Pizza Hut / I’m at the Taco Bell / I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” It seemed like a bunch of frat boys pulling a prank, which may explain the burst of ubiquitous popularity that the song received, but there was strangely something deeper at work here, which may also have something to do with its zeitgeist baiting.

In many respects, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” speaks to the vast saturation of consumer culture in America, and, on another level, posits that everyone is lost within the overarching franchising of all things pop – particularly when it comes to the level playing field of the Internet. Perhaps for that subconscious reason, the song struck a nerve, and with the addition of two free Internet-download mixtapes (2010’s Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) this Brooklyn group became the toast of the hip-hop town, particularly in the hipster community. Indeed, with their encyclopedic raps about all things low-brow and high-brow, the duo of MCs behind Das Racist – Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. Heems) and Victor Vazquez (a.k.a. Kool A.D.), with perfunctory contributions from Ashok Kondabolu (a.k.a. Dap) in music videos and live performances – carved a niche that was one-part comedy and one-part astute social commentary. If anything, Das Racist, which takes its name from the amalgamation of a homage to early ‘90s rappers Das EFX and the catchphrase “That’s racist!” from Wonder Showzen, didn’t even feel like hip-hop. It was as though the group leaned heavily on the indie rock side of things, by ironically (in the hip sense) sampling the decidedly uncool Billy Joel (“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”) and the Doors (“People Are Strange”) as backdrops for their machine-gun-paced rhymes.

Now, Das Racist has released their first bona-fide record, or at least the first one the group wants you to pay for, in the form of Relax. The predominate thing you can say about the album is that the humour, while it’s still there, is a little more muted. Das Racist clearly want to be taken seriously or at least to make money. There’s no irony lost that the group is releasing the disc on their own aptly-titled Greedhead label. As a result, Das Racist has crafted a disc that is probably going to polarize fans. You’ll still want to love the group for their clever rhymes and name checks of all sorts of pop culture (or sometimes indie friendly) luminaries from Lady Gaga, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Carly Simon, My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, but you’ll find yourself balking at the album for its full-on embrace of the tropes of standard hip-hop. That is to say, Das Racist is now concerned about the bling, as well as, a little more uncomfortably, treating women as playthings and vapid airheads in equal measure.

What’s more, the sound of the group has changed. Rather than writing dippy club anthems that you can sweat over, the group is now crafting Public Enemy-style air-raid siren blasts of noise that you can use to rattle the windows of your neighbours as you blare the tunes from your Jeep as you drive by. The production is garish and loud, which sometimes comes as a detriment to the witty wordplay and banter, which you’ll have to strain your ears to sometimes hear. In a way, Das Racist is trying to be the hip-hop equivalent of the genre-mutating Radiohead, which isn’t merely some kind of backhanded comment. The group actually briefly quotes some of the lyrics to “Fitter Happier” on one of the songs here, “Happy Rappy”. Changes are definitely afoot, which is largely evident from a first glance of Relax’s album cover – the couch that the group sat on gracing the art accompanying their two mixtapes is on fire in the background.

The biggest change, as alluded to earlier, is that the group is now trying to cash in on the success of their viral hit song and two mixtapes. On “Brand New Dance”, they rap: “It’s a brand new dance / Give us all your money”, as well as bragging, “I got a credit card / I got a million dollars / I got a baby bird / I only feed her candy”. What’s more, on the title track there’s, “These days, I’m mostly focused on my bank account / I ain’t backing out until I own a bank to brag about.” “Get that money,” goes a throwaway line on “Happy Rappy”, and on “Middle of the Cake”, the group is practically rolling around in greenbacks on the floor with the line, “Money is money is money is money is money.” That line pretty much sums up the raison d'être behind Relax: make cash, and make it as fast as you can. It seems like such a preoccupation, it’s distracting.

In addition, Das Racist fall prey to one of the traps of hip-hop music, showing off their lyrical prowess when, in the past, they let the rhymes speak for themselves. Now, we get the boast “I’m fucking great at rapping” on “Michael Jackson”, and that’s before the group members begin complimenting themselves on their acumen on the mic: “Kool A.D., you good at rapping / Yo Hima, you good at rapping / Yo Victor, you genus Latin / Yo Hima, you Eric Clapton / Yo Victor, we going platinum.” Consider that three years ago, the group was more concerned about finding themselves in a fast-food joint as opposed to selling a million copies; the transition is, well, a little disconcerting. (It continues throughout the disc. On “Selena” we get: “I’m the fucking best / Best rapper alive, I swear to God man.”)

However, the most egregious thing about Relax is that it falls backwards in that time-honored rap tradition of misogyny in the lyrics, or at least a preoccupation with women as mere objects – which would be funny coming from Das Racist considering that on previous mixtapes they were so geeky that you doubted their ability to get laid. Here, one line goes “Kumbaya bitches / You flash us, flash you / Funk us, funk that / Burn air, vacuum / Now there’s a hot sauce for that ass, babe, Achtung.” An eyebrow-raising and decidedly uncharacteristic guest rap from Detroit MC Danny Brown on the song “Power” goes, “And she deep throat / And she licked my nuts / That’s the combination of licking dick suck”. Then, of course, there’s a bit more light-hearted song here called “Bootie in the Air”, which should be pretty self-explanatory. For those who need lyrical proof, you get: “She got her booty in the air / Like her booty was a cloud / And when her booty clap / Her booty clap loud.” That’s not the only place where women are portrayed as objects. On “Punjabi Song”: “Everybody fuck around, shut the fuck up / I can’t even hear what you’re saying, girl / Shut up ... / Yeah, girl, stick your butt up / Shake it all around.” And that’s not to speak of what appear to be a few slurs here and there against “fags” and “lesbians”. This is a startling change from “Coochie Dip City” from Shut Up, Dude, which was more of a nerdy profession of wanting sex than actually getting it. I’m not saying that Das Racist should be asexual; however, Relax at times comes off as angry and mean-spirited. There’s no humour in that.

Sonically, Das Racist, at times, reference other indie and hipster-friendly bands. “Girl” sounds like a mutant cross between a TV on the Radio song and Vampire Weekend (which is likely not coincidental considering Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij produces “The Trick”). “Selena” even conjures up the spirit of the rock-based Beastie Boys. There are also some nods to the group’s cultural background, with the bhangra chanting on “Punjabi Song”, courtesy of Bikram Singh, and “Michael Jackson” sounding quite utterly Bollywood. Overall, there’s a harder edge to the material here, which speaks to Das Racist’s bar-raising in terms of being perceived as not being a joke or novelty act anymore. What might be surprising, then, is that “Rainbow in the Dark”, which originally appeared on Shut Up, Dude, makes a reappearance on Relax, a bit of recycling that only serves to remind listeners at just how good Das Racist could be. There are boasts on that track, but they’re not quite so in your face. The song is dense, full of all sorts of agreeable pop culture references from White Castle to Don King to Donkey Kong Country. So when Das Racist muse, as they do, on closing track “Celebration”, “What can I give you that you would actually need?", I would have to say more deceivingly simple rhymes that wind around like a labyrinth and contain hidden multiple meanings – rather than just blathering on about being the greatest rappers (you’re not) and wanting money (which you may or may not get).

On Relax, Das Racist, at worst, deliver an album that tries too hard to sound like every other rap album out there. Where once they might have been subtle in criticising the predomination of pop culture, Relax shows Das Racist wanting to now be a part of it. In doing so, Das Racist has traded in the currency that made them so special, and they now sound utterly pissed off in their modus operandi. They’re just bitching about the fact that while they may have Internet fame, they don’t have any money. Cry me a river. If that still sounds appealing, realize that unlike Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man, this is one where Das Racist is passing the tab over from themselves directly to you. In that sense, then, the joke is no longer in the Das Racist lyric sheet. Instead, it seems to be firmly planted on the listener.

5

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image