“We’re funny dudes but we’re also insular somewhat sad dudes. Yall just assumed we were rather one-dimensional I think.”—Heems, during his Reddit AMA on the day Wild Water Kingdom came out.
Because of the pop culture references, and because of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, and because it’s easier to laugh than to confront Das Racist’s trenchant criticisms of a supposedly post-race America in a meaningful way, it’s easy to miss the current of sadness that runs through their music. Sure, they might be known for wild live shows that annihilate your expectations, but ultimately their music is about anxiety, trying to fit into a popular culture that sees you as an “other,” the sinking feeling that your liberal arts education was a pyramid scheme, and trying to succeed in a world that doesn’t want you to. This is the peril of being part of the most misunderstood rap groups, maybe ever: Your true meanings are ignored by people with a tl;dr attitude, who can’t see the forest for your Parenthood references trees.
Himanshu “Hang Ten Heems” Suri, one leg of the Das Racist tripod, is often the one most responsible for Das Racist’s bends toward bleary self-reflection, and he delivers probably the most emotionally fraught release from the DR camp yet with his great new Wild Water Kingdom. While his prodigious shout outs to pro wrestlers, Junot Diaz, the water park of the album’s title, Styles P’s juice bar, and sticking up kids for their calculators will get the recognition, Wild Water Kingdom is an oft-dejected album that finds Heems calling himself “Mr. Potential Abortion Stat” and the “Brown Chris Farley” as he recounts tales of his parents’ house being stoned by white kids in his neighborhood. It’s an album that packs a lot of gloomy self-reflection in between its moments of underground rap triumph.
“My anxiety definitely impacts my music and performances. There’s this general paranoia and confusion running through my music as well. Initially I was so anxious about performing I would drink too much and then some white critic would call it ‘punk’ so I figured out I could pretty much do whatever I want. That was a helpful thing.”
Which is not to say that Wild Water Kingdom is some sad bastard, Sun Kil Moon thing by any means; it’s just that where Heems sounded like a fed-up activist on this year’s Nehru Jackets, here he’s resigned himself to instability. He runs out of stimulants on one of the album’s most impossibly catchy tracks (“Third Thing”) and repeatedly calls himself the “Brown Chris Farley” on “Cowabunga Gnarly”, the album’s breakout single.
That reference is funny at first, and then you realize the sad undercurrent: Chris Farley, after all, died alone in his apartment, convinced no one loved him, left to die of an overdose by a prostitute he couldn’t convince to spend the night with him. That Heems says later, “In case I go bye bye from popping Ox/ gave my mom 30 stacks cash for her safety deposit box,” only cements “Cowabunga Gnarly”’s status as one of 2012’s best Trojan horses: a banging earworm Harry Fraud production that is actually about Heems being worried his lifestyle is going to kill him.
The main difference between Wild Water Kingdom and Nehru Jackets, apart from the mood, is the production. The latter was produced entirely by Mike Finito, while the former boasts a bevy of underground talent. Fraud handles the Sega Genesis-sounding title track, in addition to the aforementioned “Cowabunga Gnarly”. Steel Tipped Dove supplies a glistening, melancholy beat for “Medium Green Eyes”, while a jovial Lushlife drum circle provides the backbone to album highlight “Soup Boys” (“We rollin green up from Mecca to Medina” is my favorite quote on the entire album).
Beautiful Lou, Le1f, and BLKHRTS handle a track each, while Finito still gets three tracks. It’s hard to tell if Hima picked beats that fit the water theme of the title, or if the producers were given instructions to be as wavy as possible, but either way, despite the wide production roster, the beats congeal into nearly as uniform a piece as Nehru Jackets.
This is the part where I’m supposed to wrap this up in a package that makes you as sure as I am that Wild Water Kingdom is one of this year’s best mixtapes, but I’m not sure I can do it satisfactorily. I’ve rewritten this last section like seven times, but I can’t make it connect because all of it seems self-evident to me. Like, as far as MCs who make me think, make me want to read new books, who have the most interesting production, who make me confront what hip-hop is “supposed” to be “about,” who have the best jokes, it’s Heems and everyone else.
Being a Das Racist fan means hoping that every new release will be the one where people realize that there is something deeper than just a stream of Internet-friendly references in their music. A lot of the coverage of Wild Water Kingdom has centered on how Heems had a $30,000 check from K-Mart on him in that Fader What’s in My Bag feature, and whether or not he’s just fooling with people who want him to rap like Saigon, or whoever the ideal, straight-ahead rapper is. So, this one probably isn’t the one where people realize the deeper stuff going on here.
For those willing to dive into Wild Water Kingdom for real, who are willing to hear the stories of feeling out of place, feeling unworthy, feeling overwhelmed, feeling sure the world is out to get you, feeling like there’s nothing that can entertain you, it will be one of this year’s most rewarding listens.