The pairing of Himanshu Kumar Suri and Rizwan Ahmed, aka Heems (formerly of Das Racist) and Riz MC(HBO’s The Night Of), is a rewarding one. Comprised of a Pakistani and an Indian, the self-aware Swet Shop Boys form an unlikely duo that capitalizes on contrast, both musical and cultural. Teeming with political undertones and civil issues, their debut, Cashmere wields its views over a collection of animated instrumentals that dip into hip-hop and grime, as well as Bollywood and qawwali music. Globalization and going-out haven’t harmonized this well since M.I.A. crash-landed into pop consciousness over a decade ago.
Like Maya Arulpragasam and Run the Jewels before them, Swet Shop Boys adopt an uninhibited, unapologetic attitude, never shying from uncouth or contentious statements. Heralded by a shehnai woodwind on “Terminal 5”, Heems lyrically leaps from religion to martial law to geographical politics, eventually ending his verse on Palestine, at which point he realizes “we’re in trouble.” Make no mistake, both he and Riz strive to unsettle rather than becalm, and in doing so fulfill dual roles of artist and activist. “We’re militant/You’re on that Milli Vanilli-vibe” Riz spits on the second verse, the underlying message being that artists who avoid political action are shams, lying to themselves about their integrity.
Nothing escapes Riz or Heems’ scrutiny: racial profiling, the TSA, Islamophobia, all receive due examination on Cashmere in a wealth of tones, ranging from comical to critical. The very best verses embody both flavors, such as Heems’ religious epiphany on “Shottin”: “I'm from cop-killer Queens, kill a cop and it's fine/I read pigs are haram in the book that's divine.”
Paired together, Heems and Riz complement the other’s flow like pineapple on pizza, distinct on their own but combined are something freshly delectable altogether. Heems’ relaxed, NYC swagger provides a blasé confidence and humor while Riz’s edged, English tongue sears the record with its intensity and sharp digs. “Tiger Hologram” depicts a playfully vulgar competition for a woman’s attention between laidback Long Islander and poison-barbed Brit, while the trappy “No Fly List” seamlessly shifts from Heems’ mesmerizing, sedated musings to Riz’s machine-gun taunts: “Like Jigga when he first heard Lemonade.”
Their relentless voices find an equal match in Cashmere’s lively and often aggressive beats, with credit due to producer Redinho, aka Tom Calvert. Drawing from a world of instruments and genres, Calvert propels the Swet Shop Boys across the realms of Hindustani music and hip-hop. On the mischievous “Tiger Hologram”, Heems and Riz pinball off a frisky, synthetic qawwali melody for surprisingly club-ready results. Meanwhile, dhols and tamblas present in “No Fly List” and “Zayn Malik” supply a backbone and a backstory to each track, as much melodic tools as they are cultural ones. In the same way the boys’ lyrical density adds to Cashmere’s layers, Calvert’s musical fusions diversify it in a way that speaks to its multicultural background.
A project global in both influence and perspective, Cashmere subsequently contends with roots that have origins in perceived opposites: East versus West, developed versus developing, Pakistani versus Indian. The wordplay behind “swet shop” itself simultaneously references first-world music and third-world strife. The relentless dhols and bansuri flute of “Half-Moghul, Half-Mowgli” appeal to Riz’s religious heritage, while the fitna, or temptations, of pop culture pull him elsewhere: “My only heroes were black rappers/So to me Tupac was a true Paki.” But nothing bites more so than Heems’ parting shot on the finale, “Din-E-iLahi”: “Used to call me curry/Now they cook it in their kitchen.” By voicing their own personal contradictions and struggles with their cultures, both MCs concurrently address globalization’s drawbacks, including xenophobia, cultural exploitation, and conflict of identity.
Nevertheless, Cashmere ultimately embraces the cultural convergence that led to its genesis. The Bollywood-blast of “Aaja”, which translates to English from Hindi as ‘come’, invites all peoples to partake in both celebration and global politics. Rather than raise new walls, the Swet Shop Boys instead strive to bridge cultures together as a way to accomplish their objectives. A sample of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai midway through Cashmere captures this ideal: “We can show the world that an Indian and a Pakistani can work together to achieve their goals.”
Impressively condensed to under an hour, Cashmere’s thrilling tale of two MCs stands as a worthy achievement indeed. Musically, it holds up in the same way actual cashmere holds heat: better than most. A MINUS