Heems, having broken away from rap group Das Racist, tackles politics, race and romance on his disparate yet ultimately compelling first solo album.
If rap music is the emotional and creative outlet for the underprivileged, discriminated and societally ignored, then Heems (formerly of ironic rap crew Das Racist), who is of Punjabi-Indian descent, has continued the tradition with his first solo LP, Eat Pray Thug. He does so by calling on his personal experiences as a Middle-Easterner in post-9/11 America, a perspective that hip-hop and popular culture in general has failed to examine on almost every level.
Das Racist could be timidly political at times, particularly on racial issues, but Eat Pray Thug, an album that’s openly provocative in its politics, suggests that Heems was always the catalyst for those themes when explored by his never-serious group. Like when Big Boi and Andre 3000 split Outkast’s 2003 double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below between them and suddenly Andre was covering “My Favorite Things”, crooning soulful jazz tracks and making post-modern pop masterpieces like “Hey Ya”, Heems without Das Racist seems liberated, free to explore his passions without the filler. The beats on Eat Pray Thug are as wacky and irreverent as they were on Das Racist’s mixtapes and their lone studio album Relax, but Heems is 180 degrees more serious on his own.
Of course, Eat Pray Thug still wrestles with irony and borderline gimmick tracks, creating a tone of dissonance that Das Racist were never in danger of running into by virtue of never seeming sincere. The juxtaposition pushes some of Heems’ rhymes into black comedy territory, especially on “Flag Shopping”, where he details the need for racially ambiguous Americans to overcompensate to look patriotic: “We’re going flag shopping for American flags / They’re staring at our turbans, they’re calling them rags / They’re calling them towels, they’re calling them diapers / They’re more like crowns, let’s strike them like vipers.” The track is something like Heems’ “Fuck the Police”, a brutal takedown of American society’s innate racism, and it would be a highlight if Heems didn’t insist on using a monotone drawl over the already emaciated beat.
The rapper covers similar territory on the album’s powerful closer, “Patriot Act”, the album’s most serious cut. For the majority of the song, Heems ruminates on post-9/11 America in spoken word, including how he saw the Twin Towers fall from his New York City school. It’s the first time Heems seems to let his guard down completely and make himself vulnerable, providing plenty of cutting, honest lines: “We yelled ‘I’m just like you’ as quietly and calmly as we could so as to not raise too much attention”, “We ironed our polo shirts and combed our hair, and we proudly paid our taxes, and we immediately donated to a local white politician”, and “Got what we asked for: someone to listen”. This is the prevailing theme across Eat Pray Thug, more visceral and intimate in some places than others, and “Patriot Act” is its fierce, bitter source.
Honestly, though, it’s no better or worse than Heems’ joke-laden stream-of-consciousness verses (“Jawn Cage”) or his peculiarly poignant love songs (“Damn, Girl”, “Pop Song (Games)”, the Dev Hynes-featured “Home”), but the disparate tone of all of it put together is more than a little bit off-putting. Still, even Heems seems to cop to it, starting the album off with by far the most Das Racist-sounding track on the album, lead single “Sometimes”, in which he succinctly and humorously summarizes the ridiculous discord of his life and music: “Sometimes I’m ‘bout chicks, sometimes it’s politics / Sometimes I like ‘em thick, sometimes I like ‘em fit / Sometimes I need a hit, sometimes I need to get / A little something heavy to deal with all this shit." In the end, we’re all in on the joke.
Yes, Eat Pray Thug’s powerful and insightful thematic essence battles against Heems’ awkward stylistic choices and disjointed genre-bending. What Heems has to say is incredibly valuable, more so in a popular culture that still struggles to give a stable platform to minority voices -- particularly those of Middle-Eastern and South Asian descent -- but the way he says what he does vacillates wildly between novel and misguided. Ultimately, though, Eat Pray Thug’s many virtues outweigh its many imperfections. At some point, all the music’s dissonance and divergence just makes it more vital and interesting. Without Das Racist, Heems’ limitless creativity has completely erupted, and as messy as it all is, it’s a little beautiful, too.
Splash image: press photo of Heems by Shivani Gupta.