At times, Das Racist seems stitched together from rare cloth, a patchwork of ideas and identities that manages to hold together in a simultaneously digestible and sprawling paradox. Since bursting through the gates of hip hop in a joke rap Trojan Horse, the group has impressively mixed self-promotion with self-awareness, openly struggling with identity politics while tossing off rhymes and references at a frenetic pace. The resulting tug-of-war between punchlines and heavy shit has often been challenging – abrasive, even – but it has come to define the group. Now, with the spotlight brighter than ever, they have pulled off the coup of elevating their game without changing their nature.
Rappers Heems and Kool A.D. (Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez, respectively) have hustled hard to ditch the joke rap reputation without ditching the joke rap. On Relax they do it, mixing insightful social commentary and dialogue on race with pop culture references and general irreverence – a combination they’ve found before on mixtapes Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man. Here, though, there’s a little more focus, a little less tape, and an undercurrent of uneasiness. Relax is still challenging, but it tries your expectations, not your attention span.
From the start, the album is combative and self-deprecating. “White devils like it,” opens Vazquez on the album’s titular track, before mocking his own authenticity. “See me playing bass in jam bands up at Wesleyan/See me at a poetry slam in like ’97/Singing classic numbers by Otis Redding/Totally shredding/Hoping you get it, yeah.” Later in the track Heems – at his most ferocious – puts his past behind him: “Juvenile shit/I ain’t really tryna rap about/I don’t remember from b-b-ba b-blackin’ out/These days, I’m mostly focused on my bank account/I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.” It’s the most driven the two have sounded – on a song called “Relax,” no less – and it sets the tone for a frenzied fifty-minute ride.
“Michael Jackson,” the album’s second song and lead single, is the most explosive song on Relax, a fiery track with an infectious hook that was first heard on an episode of Pitchfork.tv’s Selector. Whether chicken or egg, the album cut is unstoppable, with an extended posse namedrop from Heems that manages to transcend crew calling to become compelling rap. He finishes a jam-packed verse with the much-quoted modest shout, “Yeah, I’m fucking great at rapppinnnnnng!”
“Michael Jackson” isn’t the only Relax reference we’ve seen before. The album is littered with bits and pieces of the pair’s past. Track five, “Girl” borrows a bar from a Katy Perry-sampling track that Heems posted earlier this year on Tumblr. “Shut Up, Man” amalgamates the titles of the group’s two stellar mixtapes, “Shut Up, Dude” and “Sit Down, Man”; ““Rainbow In The Dark” is repurposed from the first of those two tapes. Hell, on “Selena,” Relax’s eleventh track, Das Racist is already referencing “Michael Jackson.”
This constant repetition and self-reference the crux of what makes Das Racist such a captivating group. Heems and Kool A.D. wear their art on their sleeve, with nearly every track giving the listener the feeling that they’re hearing it unfold in real time. When Vasquez botches the pronunciation of John Carpenter’s name on “Selena,” there’s no re-take; “John Comforter, oh fuck, I didn’t know how to say John Carpenter,” he raps. But that sort of muff (which, for all I know, could have been very calculated, although I feel like it wasn’t) sounds completely normal in the context of Das Racist. Though diligent and insightful, practiced they are not.
Listening to Das Racist’s releases over the past few years is akin to stumbling across a manuscript of a novel and then reading draft after draft as the author refines plot points and tightens prose. From one album to the next, fans have heard Das Racist evolve from a dopey duo with nothing to lose to a group that all of a sudden has some inexplicable (or, very explicable) gravitas. It’s tempting to say that this group was a happy accident, a serendipitous success, but in hindsight it seems almost inevitable that hip hop fans today would find common ground with rappers referencing Jeff Mangum Fran Drescher while occupying chart positions adjacent to Lil Wayne and Kanye West. They just needed to figure out how to get there.
It’s a strange position to be in, to be sure. Maybe that’s why Heems utters some variation of “I feel weird” on no less than three tracks. On the Anand Wilder produced “Middle of the Cake,” that weirdness seems to stem from the internet – a world that Das Racist has mastered like few other modern groups. The song contains some of Relax’s most quotable lines: “Rapgenius.com is white devil sophistry,” raps Vazquez. “Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees.” Heems attacks the superficiality of emotions found online, saying, “If I die today, remember me like Guru Dutt. Or anyone. Tweet about it, forget about it, and then don’t give a fuck.” It’s enough honesty to make everyone feel weird.
Following “Middle of the Cake” is “Girl,” one of the more fascinating tracks on Relax. A pounding dance beat takes up the first half of the track, before Heems jumps on the beat with lines that are intentionally stilted, to the point that a voice says “stupid” underneath the line, “Girl/you’re really cool/smart/that’s good at school/pretty/you’re beautiful/and I heard you got a pool.” It’s a risky track, and it only sort of hits the mark; more than anything, it’s an affirmation that Das Racist isn’t going to be bound by the paradigm.
Tomes could be written about Das Racist. If their verses aren’t someday included in an awesome (if pretentious) thesis paper on race and identity in pop culture, I’ll eat my laptop. And, funnily enough, Relax ends up suffering slightly from one of the main topics that would be explored in that paper – confused identity. The album jumps around from style to style, with Heems and Kool A.D. serving as the only glue to keep the often drastically different tracks together. Even with Heems and A.D. as constants, the tracks remain scattered, as Suri and Vazquez vacillate between moods and whims. As Heems tweeted, “i made half that album while SAD and half while HAPPY.” He tagged it with the hash tag #theotherdoubleconsciousness, a reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’ term for the “sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others.” The simultaneous self awareness and self consciousness – and abrupt transition from one to the other – is Das Racist’s biggest strength and occasional weakness.
Listening to Relax is exhausting in a thrilling way. It’s a shape-shifting barrage of verses that demand to be taken seriously, juxtaposed with surreal and superficial hooks that do the opposite. Das Racist may be the kings of repetitive, infectious, nonsensical hooks. They certainly are tops in the poignancy game. And increasingly they appear to have a better grip on how to run the music industry than nearly anyone else involved at any level. They know it. The final track of Relax, “Celebration,” is exactly that, lauding the ability of the group to make money off of a product that could easily be found for free by most of their fans.
“We could give it away,” raps Vazquez, throwing it impishly in the face of fans. “We don’t mean what we say. We could joke, we could play. We could joke all day. What could I give you? What could I give you that you actually need?” And in the end, though Relax may be flawed, it is exactly what hip hop needs.