I wasn’t too fond of Relax, the 2011 Das Racist album that, I guess, was supposed to launch the group into a whole different realm, but they’re quietly having a pretty great 2012. Kool A.D.’s The Palm Wine Drinkard mixtape was a bit of an unfocused mess, but it had some deeply fun moments, perhaps most notably the song actually called “Fun.” But Himanshu’s big, sprawling Nehru Jackets was a rowdy splurge of conflicted, pissed-off Queens rap that filtered Heems’ home borough’s tradition of dense boom-bap through the perspective of a young internet-savvy Indian dude. It gets better every time I hear it. Both Das Racist rappers have also made a ton of strong guest appearances lately, and the members of their extended family are also making some serious noise. Lakutis’s December EP I’m In The Forest was an under-the-radar gem. And now we get No1 2 Look Up 2, the new tape from Greedhead affiliate Big Baby Gandhi, which feels like the arrival of a powerful new voice.
At 21, Gandhi is way younger than the other guys in his crew, and his delivery is shoutier and more insistent. But his overall approach isn’t too different from the Das Racist guys: Dense references and inside jokes, all delivered conversationally over weirdly lurching, off-kilter beats, all of which sneak around and punch you in the side of the head with stark emotional power when you’re not expecting it. These guys are all perfectly capable of making jokes or entertainingly drunk party-raps, but that’s not exactly what they’re about. Instead, they’re about capturing the sort of weird outsidery feeling that must come from being brown in New York, a chaotically diverse city that still feels permanently on-edge, especially when it comes to interacting with the Middle Eastern and South Asian people who the city’s tabloids have spent the past decade-plus demonizing. In his Spin review of Nehru Jackets, my friend Brandon Soderberg made some strong points about how the tape “sonically implies a post-9/11 sense of everything falling apart, which fits the worldview of a brown MC who realizes he’s a symbol of ’terror’ for racist idiots enabled by ’If you see something, say something’ signs.” That same sensibility is all over No1 2 Look Up 2, rendered with the passionate force of someone who’s just coming to adulthood and figuring out how to address the fucked-up shit he sees.
Gandhi can be funny when he talks about race and feeling like the Other. Here he is, for instance, rapping over shattered boom-bap on “Drink A Lil Pepsi: “I’m on the 7 train, peeping Spanish chicks / I’m on the L train, peeping white chicks / I’m on the J train, peeping black chicks / They all roll their eyes quick: As if.” Or over mutated disco on “Boogie Nights”: “The honeys call me Young Kama Sutra / Old white people real mad cuz I’m the future.” But over a floaty stretched-out cloud of an indie-pop sample, he brings the same conflicted emotive force as he does when he gets emotional over a dead loved one and then chastises himself for the display: “A long time ago, I ain’t even wanna flow / My peoples getting locked up in Guantanamo / My peoples still locked up in Guantanamo / But I fell in love with the golden designer clothes.” Not all of the angst on display on the mixtape has to do with race. Plenty of it is also about being a young person attempting to find a place in an economic and cultural climate that’s totally fucking inhospitable to young people: “Dreams is big, but my surroundings are small / I don’t really like my surroundings at all / I hate New York, Queens is a dump / Can’t get a real job, you gotta pee in a cup.” As someone who spent his mid-20s attempting to make a living in NYC, that bit rings uncomfortably true — and I left town just after the 2008 market crash. God knows how it feels now.
Sonically, the tape, like so many other Das Racist products, shows the lingering influence of Def Jux skronk-rap on the newly resurgent New York underground. Bits of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, for example, echo all around the clanking, murmuring bomb shelter of “True Blood.” Gandhi and his associates are way less abstract and more recognizably drunk than the Def Jux guys ever were, and Gandhi spends a decent chunk of the tape begging for blowjobs, but the echoes are still there. And it’s a fitting sonic accompaniment for this potent mix of slizzard one-liners and true-to-life tension. Big Baby Gandhi captures something with this one. I’m still making sense of what, exactly, it captures, but it’s worth puzzling out.
Download No1 2 Look Up 2 for free here.