On 2016’s Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys, consisting of MCs Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri (Heems), along with producer Redinho, made a strong postmodern hip-hop album that explored South Asian identity amid the current cultural climate. With lyrics that frequently referred to the vacillating tendency of the ruling class to demonize and fetishize their respective cultures, Ahmed and Suri were able to create a unique space the coupled woke rhymes and funny asides for the album’s 36-minute running time.
Still, as strong as Cashmere was, there was a clear sense that Swet Shop Boys were still in the process of finding their tone. As much common ground as there was between Suri and Ahmed, they sounded like they were going for different ends too much of the time — with Suri pushing the cloud rap improv thing while Ahmed hit each track pretty straight-on with his grime-inflected flow. For their follow-up EP Sufi La, Swet Shop Boys said that they are leaving “the political for the party”, resulting in a five-song stretch that finds the MCs creating a synthesis that’s more coherent in its looseness and fun than its more serious-minded predecessor.
For the most part, Cashmere was a startling introduction to Riz Ahmed’s rapping skills. Mostly known as an actor, Riz was able to prove himself as an MC through his intensity and his unique lyrical perspective that could just as easily support B-boy trash talking as well as references to Homer. His rapping on Sufi La is uniformly strong too, but it’s imbued with a levity via Fred Flintstone “Yabba Dabba Doo” quotes and self-aware groaners like “I used to be unruly / Now she turned me into a foodie” on “Thas My Girl” — which itself is a reference to Brandy and Monica’s “That Boy Is Mine” with a little sprinkle of R. Kelly and Usher’s “Same Girl”.
Elsewhere, on the opener “Anthem”, Ahmed inverts the power structure that made the term “Paki” derogatory through boasting: “I’m Paki Chan, I’m Paki Robinson, I’m Pak Nicholson.” It’s a hilarious and yet still painful moment of rap boasting, where the MC is able to reckon with oppressive language and use it for his own strength. It’s one of the better examples of the good to be found within the Swet Shop Boys’ work.
As strong as MC Riz is on Sufi La, the real star of the show here is Heems, who raps with more focus and energy than on any release since Das Racist’s still-fabulous Sit Down Man. At his best, Heems is able to swing between conscious-rap and street-rap archetypes, imbuing both his unique point of view that’s equal parts wallflower and stoner goof. Heems has a special ability to rattle off small details with seemingly lazy rhymes that mean more than they first imply, like on the closing “Need Moor”: “Ey yo, I’m listening to Suicide in my whip / So I don’t commit suicide in my whip / So I can get come suicide doors on my whip.” “Need Moor” riffs on the need for more, but Heems raps from an exhausted point of view that reveals how empty the paper chase can feel. Working as a foil to Ahmed’s straightforward listing of material items on the same track, Heems’ lyrical sense seems even richer.
Heems’ finest moment on the EP comes on the solo track “Birding” which one of the most clever (and best) stoner rap songs to come out in a few years. After conflating the act of bird-watching with philandering and listing out names of birds that don’t rhyme, the track closes with the ebullient lyrics, “This the bird song, yo that’s a bird!” It’s the closest he’s come to getting back to the ridiculous choruses of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” and “Michael Jackson”. Taken together with his more serious-minded rhymes elsewhere, “Birding” reminds us that, when he wants to be, Heems can be one of the more energetic and unique MCs in the game.
More than a stopgap release between albums, the Sufi LA EP builds on what Cashmere did well while adding more layers to the lyricism. And, even more so than Cashmere, the record illustrates the group as a real operating unit. The synergy between the MCs and producer Redinho provides evidence that Swet Shop Boys are for real.