At this point I think it’s safe to say that one of Das Racist’s primary objectives is to confront American bohemia with its own undeniable whiteness. This is water under the bridge for a lot of us. Scanning a room to discover I’m the token black guy at whatever event I’m attending is a persistent reality for me that’s passed the point of being interesting. (People of color just don’t fuck with independent music as much for whatever reason. Nobel Prize to the first person who can explain this phenomenon, although If I had to be perfectly honest, it probably has a lot to do with the dissemination of new technology into society, which is still an area where working class people of color are far from the vanguard. As Heems randomly quipped in this ridiculous 2010 Eliot Arnonow interview, “I’ve never seen a person of color on the train with a Kindle.” It’s 2012, I live in New York City, and I’ve maybe seen one. But I digress.)
Where shit got hilarious, though, is when the indie blog structure played right back into their hands with a glut of glowing reviews that failed to give anything beyond a cursory mention of the pervasive vein of minority otherness that runs through the music. Sure, the group uses humor for subterfuge, but that no one so much as brushed against the elephant in the room, that so many writers tackling obviously racially prickly subject matter would come away with the resounding impression that what they’d heard is merely super ironic, referential comedy rap is a fucked up state of affairs. (For more on that, check the homie B. Michael Payne’s metacritical piece on the understated effects the drought of music critics of color has had on the musical dialogue at large. If you heard nothing about R&B records last year that weren’t House of Balloons or Nostalgia, Ultra, chances are you’re a victim of the aforementioned effects.) If Das Racist is comedy rap, then the jokes have got to be of the shiny suit Chris Rock variety, meant to rattle you while you cackle.
To his credit, Heems, who seems to have drifted into frontman territory in terms of visibility, maintains an online presence that is as direct as his music can be ambiguous. With a tone pitched squarely between humor and agitprop, Heems has become a sort of involuntary spokesperson for young first-generation Americans of South Asian decent. When news came last year that US forces had cornered and killed Osama Bin Laden, Heems took to his Twitter account, retweeting the barrage of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic hate speech he’d found using the site’s search function. He dedicated an essay on Alternet to his feeling that “it was like post-9/11 all over again”, when a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment led to a wave of hate crimes across the nation. He also maintains Nehru Jackets, a Tumblr account which is a promotional tool as well as a home for feisty theories on race, fond reminiscences of Indian culture and a forum where fans’ anonymous offbeat questions about race are met with honest ears. The recently released Nehru Jackets mixtape is one third of Das Racist’s KISS-like plot to release separate solo releases more or less at the same time. Like its namesake blog, Nehru Jackets finds Heems dropping a measure of the winking sarcasm that peppers the Das Racist catalog to tell his story, talk some shit, and shout down social injustice.
At a hulking 74 minutes, Nehru’s a lot to take in, and its different moods trip over top of each other without a care. In the first five minutes, we make it from the out-of-shape “Crown Fried Chickening” of “Thug Handles” to the racial malcontent of “Bad, Bad, Bad” (“They let us in ‘65, want our labor, not our lives, not our kids, not our wives”) on through to the ripped-from-TMZ absurdism of “Alien Gonzalez”. The record’s emotional lows are almost always immediately chased by its highs; later on the morose PJ Harvey-sampling pill anthem “It’s the Drug I’m Needing” is followed up by the raucous, autobiographical “Coca Cola Freestyle”, and “Juveniles in Detained at Guantanamo Bay”, which, like sorta Strokes cover “NYC Cops”, recounts the little known stories real people whose lives were ruined by the American justice system, hits immediately before “Kate Boosh Shit”, Nehru Jackets’ celebratory apex. It’s disorienting and overwhelming, but it’s thanks to Nehru’s glut of ace beats and rhymes that it almost never goes off the rails.
Heems has always been pegged as the lesser of the two dominant lyrical forces in Das Racist, but that’s bullshit because he holds his own here. Freed from the burden of playing the loudmouth foil to Kool AD’s mellower straight man, Heems gets to explore uncharted territory with his voice, turning out the barely contained spoken word outrage of “NYC Cops”, the swinging, sedate flow of “What Do I Do When I’m Alone”, the sing-song cadences of “Coca Cola Freestyle”, and the seemingly free associative stream of consciousness at play on tracks like “I Want It Bad (Liquid Heart)” and “Womyn”. Heems’ verses are flanked by arch lyrical turns from Greedhead compatriots and New York rap up-and-comers alike. After Danny Brown crushes “You Have to Ride the Wave”, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire drops in to curse out Nehru’s resident producer Mike Finito for neglecting to send him beats. Big Baby Gandhi and Fat Tony provide the alley oop on “Bangles”, and Despot, Lakutis, and Kool AD all turn up for guest verses elsewhere in the tape, along with a few members of SEVA, a Queens-based community outreach organization. But for all the stellar performances here, (barring Childish Gambino, who turns up to torpedo an ode to women with a sexist rant about women who identify with Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl, which, fuck that if it exists. Ladies, say it ain’t so. This cannot be life.) the real breakout star of Nehru Jackets is its producer.
To hear Heems tell it, Nehru Jackets exists because he wanted to get Mike Finito’s name out there, and there was no way people would take dude seriously if these songs were put out as a beat tape. Whatever the case may be, the guy’s a real talent, and here’s hoping we hear more from him in the months to come. His beats will envelop your entire head in sound in headphones, all titanic drums, cavernous bass, with a gonzo variety of samples, bells and whistles fluttering through the mix. He’s probably flipped the nastiest collection of Indian samples this side of the Timbaland and Missy discography. It’s a dirty sound that’s simultaneously foreign and New York as fuck, and there’s maybe a little bit of El-P fan service in there, which is all right because, it’s fucking El-P. Finito raps too. I don’t have to tell you who he sounds like, do I?
Enough rambling. Nehru Jackets is the best rap thing to happen so far in 2012, and it’s probably the apex of the Das Racist discography. It’ll make you nod your head one minute and shake it in disgust the next. It’ll make you happy, then it’ll make you uncomfortable. It’ll make you wild out, but it’ll also make you think. Don’t miss out. Like, it’s fucking FREE. Oh, and to touch on a Twitter rant I’ve been having every couple weeks, next time somebody tells you New York fell off, pass off a copy of this, Action Bronson’s Dr. Lecter and Roc Marciano’s Marcberg, and politely invite them to fuck off.