There are people who, at the mere mention of the name “Das Racist,” will make a face like they smelled a fart. These people will then mention something about “that Pizza Hut song” — a wound from six years ago that apparently has not adequately healed yet. Das Racist came into the game with a joke-rap reputation, something they struggled with and never entirely shook. They were relentlessly clever, sure, and sometimes willfully obnoxious too. But their music, more often than not, was about race, and about the rage and pain and anxiety that come with being brown in America. They never spelled it out for you, exactly, but something like “Puerto Rican Cousins” was an angry song disguised as a playful one. When the group broke up, Heems, the more focused and aggressive of the two rappers, made Nehru Jackets, a tense and sprawling mixtape of New York rap that brought that anxiety a little further to the fore. Even there, though, he’d undercut his own seriousness: “Heems, you should rap in earnest / But honestly, I’d rather just blow cess and watch Ernest.” He must’ve run out of Ernest movies. There’s one line that Heems brings back again and again throughout Eat Pray Thug, his first (and maybe last) commercially available solo album: “I was there, I saw the towers and the planes / And I’ll never be the same / Never ever be the same.” He’s done playing.
In that line, Heems isn’t speaking metaphorically. He actually was there, going to high school in downtown Manhattan, during the 9/11 attacks. His school was turned into a triage center. He saw things that kids shouldn’t see. He talks about all of it, in plain and direct language, on “Patriot Act,” the album’s bitterly powerful closer. For any New Yorker, 9/11 is a deep psychic wound. For Heems, though, it became something else. He, his family, and families like his had to face sudden and oppressive and intense racism. And so besides the grief that came with the attacks, they had to deal with the reality of their city, and their country, suddenly turning against them: “I know that they mad, but why call us A-rabs? / We sad like they sad but now we buy they flag.” That line comes from “Flag Shopping,” a song about the desperate attempts to fit in in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Heems doesn’t just rap about direct racism; he raps about the psychological damage that it causes, the way it reverberates throughout families and changes dynamics: “Your dad mad cuz he lost all his clients / Dad, why you crying? / I thought that we had the spirit of a lion / He take it out on you, his belt big like Orion’s / The NSA be spying.” And then there’s the inevitable paranoia: “I feel it in my bones and in my chromosomes / The drones all looking at our homes, holmes / They all up in that ozone / Tapping my phone and your phone.” He doesn’t have to rap about the reverberations there. You can hear them in his voice, which has gotten more hoarse and worn, at a scary rate, in the years since we first heard him. And there’s rage there, too: “They staring at our turbans, they calling them rags / They calling them towels / They calling them diapers / They more like crowns, let’s strike them like vipers.”
“Patriot Act” is practically Heems’ version of “Last Call,” the spoken-not-sung origin story that Kanye West used to end The College Dropout. “Patriot Act” brings together all the bad feelings on the album and spells them out for you. It’s a tragic and fucked-up song, and it touches on a lot of things: Being called “Osama” constantly, having to change your name at work to make it easier for everyone to pronounce, seeing neighbors deported or harassed out of the country. The ending kills me: “Those giant metal birds in the sky brought my parents here and made things confusing. And they crashed into those buildings and made things confusing. But I guess it’s OK because my dad wasn’t deported and I still get to correct his English at dinner, so he doesn’t get too much attention and get labeled a troublemaker.” That’s how he ends the album. As a kicker, it stings. When the album ends, you don’t robotically put something else on. You let it linger for a minute.
Eat Pray Thug isn’t pure polemic. It’s an album about personal crisis, too. There are some powerful breakup songs in there, too, like the Blood Orange collab “Home.” You get the sense, though, that personal crisis is all bound up with larger issues: “Had to leave Williamsburg because of all the white drama / Had to leave my home, they kept calling me Osama / Had to leave my home cuz of drones and Obama.” And there’s Indian pride in the shit-talk, too: “I move mountains for my brothers like I’m Hanuman / They should build a monument, that’s the type of shit I’m on.” The anger and cleverness get all mixed up together, too, like when he rhymes “Amadou Diallo” with “I’m a new diablo.”
But I wouldn’t be doing this album justice if I didn’t point out that it’s a great rap album when judged strictly on rap-album terms. Past Heems and Das Racist projects have been overstuffed and overlong, but this one says everything it needs to say in 11 songs and about 40 minutes. The rapping is fierce and focused, deep in the pocket and delivered with swagger and purpose. People on the internet are going to have fun chasing all the references: “Made enough friends like I play in the Wrens / Made enough friends, ain’t no room in the Benz.” But the references never dead the momentum, and Heems himself never seems too impressed with whatever shit he just said, and that is the single greatest peril that any punchline rapper can face. Some of the beats come from established producers like Harry Fraud or Dev Hynes, but more come from people like the old Das Racist collaborator Gordon Voidwell, or from Le1f collaborator Boody B. There’s no consistent sound; it moves from fired-up elevated-BPM bangers to queasy, ’80s-damaged synth-rock melodies. But it hangs together because there’s Casio-hammering intensity to all of it and because Heems, the only rapper who appears on the album, delivers everything, even the jokes, like it’s personal. Because it is.
Eat Pray Thug apparently wasn’t an easy album to make. It’s been done for a while, held up by label and sample-clearance issues. In the credits, Heems gives “special thanks” on a couple of tracks to A-Trak and Diplo, a clear sign that the label wouldn’t pay for the beats they’d sent and that Heems had to rework those songs with placeholder beats. (It’s to Voidwell’s credit that the beats in question don’t sound like placeholders.) In interviews and on social media, Heems has complained about his label, and he’s made noises about being done with rap, about throwing himself fully into his ad-agency day job. You can understand how something like that would start to seem like a good idea, but I hope he doesn’t leave music behind. He’s just released the best piece of music of his career, and he’s only now gone from good to great.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Matthew E. White’s lush, orchestral mumblecore-soul opus Fresh Blood.
• Arcade Fire member Will Butler’s omnivorously punky solo debut Policy.
• All Dogs leader Maryn Jones’ quietly devastating The Offer, her debut under the name Yowler.
• Dick Diver’s homespun indie-popper Melbourne, Florida.
• Foo Fighter Nate Mendel’s If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week, his solo debut as Lieutenant.
• Fucked Up guitarist Ben Cook project Young Guv’s fluttery power-pop flirtation Ripe 4 Luv.
• Evans The Death’s loud noise-popper Expect Delays.
• Harm’s Way’s ambitious metallic hardcore gutpunch Rust.
• The Minus 5’s Jeff Tweedy-and-Peter Buck-assisted Dungeon Golds.
• Sarah Beth Nelson’s personal psych-punker Fast-Moving Clouds.
• Sacral Rage’s Greek speed-metal attack Illusions In Infinite Void.
• Justin Vernon collaborator Aero Flynn’s self-titled debut.
• Enslaved’s towering progressive black metal setpiece In Times.
• British soul singer Laura Welsh’s debut Soft Control.
• Pope’s ramshackle DIY debut Fiction.
• Madonna’s Diplo-assisted elder-statesman move Rebel Heart.
• Riff Raff’s screwed-and-chopped remix album Purple Icon.
• The all-star MusicNOW – 10 Years live compilation.
• Tenement’s Bruised Music Volume One collection.
• Never Young’s self-titled EP.
• Yumi Zouma’s EP II.
• Jimmy Napes’ The Making Of Me EP.
• Spook The Herd’s self-titled EP.
• Banquet’s In A Dream EP.
• Gengahr’s She’s A Witch EP.
• Self Defense Family and Touché Amoré’s collaborative 7″ Self Love.