Cashmere is a transatlantic hip-hop album that challenges representation of South Asian people in pop culture.
Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, is a Queens-born rapper formally of the wonderful rap trio Das Racist. Along with fellow Das Racist-members rapper Kool A.D. and hypeman Dapwell, Suri made beautiful music that felt accidental. Riddled with pop culture references and jokes that leavened their complicated intent the lyrics skewered everything from American rappers and singers use of patois in their songs to the internet’s geeky embrace of hip-hop culture. Das Racist were perfect at what they did, sounding like an aural meeting point between South Park and The Boondocks. The group split acrimoniously in late 2012 and the subsequent solo releases from Heems and Kool A.D., which undoubtedly have bright spots, conjure the sense that Das Racist were a lightning-in-a-bottle-once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for its members. Thankfully, Swet Shop Boys’ debut album Cashmere is the strongest work Heems has been involved with post-Das Racist and sets the template for an exciting new future.
A lot of this has to do with Heems’s new partner, Riz Ahmed. The English-born Ahmed is primarily known as an actor from his roles in Nightcrawler and HBO’s 2016 hit The Night Of, but fills the shoes of a classic MC throughout the record. Ahmed hits the beats hard like a grime artist with encyclopedic knowledge, mixing references to The Iliad with boasts like,”I’m the brown Eddie Snowden.” His voice is raspy and nimble, flipping into double-time in the moments Heems floats over the beat like on “No Fly List". Ahmed’s lyrical perspective is particularly welcome, as his lyrics throughout the album act as a reportage from someone who reckons with the problems of South Asian representation in his acting career. On the album’s first single, “T5”, he brilliantly conflates this with the lyric, “Trump want my exit, but he press a red button / To watch Netflix, bruv, I’m on,” referencing the xenophobic racism against his people and the availability of his work, like Nightcrawler, on the popular streaming service.
While Ahmed hits the songs with the edge of a 1990s MC throughout the album, Heems tethers Cashmere to modern hip-hop in the internet age. Always a great jester that’s able to mimic flows, Heems brings that post-Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Ghostface sing-song cloud rap flow that privileges improvisation over preparation. While one might miss the personal, hard-edged raps that Heems brought to Das Racist tracks like “Relax” (which detailed his parents move from Delhi to Queens), his conversational flow on songs like “Din-E-iLahi” are a great foil for Ahmed’s near-spoken word seriousness. His final lyric on the album might be his best for its plaintive, observational quality: “They comin’ for culture man, like they was on a mission / Ask me about Kama Sutra, different sex positions / Used to hate clothes, now they ask where’d I get the stitchin’ / Used to call me 'curry', now they cook it in the kitchen.” Here, Heems adroitly details South Asian perception from diminishing racism to fetishized object of the dominant culture.
The album’s production is handled exclusively by London based producer Redinho and adroitly mirrors the interplay between the two MCs. South Asian samples are used throughout the record with the varied, pliable production and stretch from the tough boom-bap of opener “T5” to the dreamy closing track “Din-E-iLahi”. Even something like the seemingly tossed off “Tiger Hologram” (this album’s closest thing to Das Racist’s “Booty in the Air”) bangs with goofy intent. Cashmere is consistent throughout: every song bangs.
Cashmere is an undeniably complicated but fun album that reckons with South Asian representation in the global pop culture of 2016. It’s totally necessary, but we’re lucky that it’s as enjoyable as it is. If there is any flaw to the album, it’s that it feels like the first step to something else. You can easily imagine while listening to it that Heems and Ahmed have even greater work in store. Let’s hope this fruitful collaboration continues.