First Listen: Heems, 'Eat Pray Thug'

Heems' new album, Eat Pray Thug comes out March 10. (Courtesy of the artist)
Heems' new album, Eat Pray Thug comes out March 10. (Courtesy of the artist)

Binary thinkers beware: If you're the type who's uncomfortable with contradiction, or would rather deal in stereotypes than nuance, then rapper Heems and his new album, Eat Pray Thug, are not for you. That kind of thinking in black and white won't work here, where Heems is making what he's described as "post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap."

Heems is the alter-ego of Queens, N.Y., native Himanshu Suri, the Indian-American MC formerly of the group Das Racist. The now disbanded trio made its mark on music with a pair of mixtapes that often read as skilled satire and send-ups of hip-hop and popular culture as well as America's absurdities. When the group broke up, each member continued to produce the kind of content that had made their group noteworthy in the first place. Rapper Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) released projects featuring his signature serpentine wordplay and free associative rhymes; hypeman/DJ Dapwell (Ashok Kondabalu) took his irreverence to Internet radio, co-hosting the show Chillin Island, and joined his brother Hari performing comedy as the Kondabalu Brothers. And Heems? He put out well-received solo tapes Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom and toured South Asia basically finding himself, reconnecting with his South Asian Hindu heritage — confessionally tweeting and Tumbling all along the way. The product of that touring and soul searching is his solo label debut, Eat, Pray, Thug.

On EPT Heems presents himself as artist, activist and addict all at once. The tone is set by its first song, "Sometimes," something of a take on Nice 'N' Smooth's "Sometimes I Rhyme Slow" and Busta Rhymes' "Touch It." The song is as much a description of his own multitudes as it is a meditation on everybody's duality — or all our fickleness — set to producer Gordon Voidwell's raucous uptempo beat. "Sometimes they like me and others they really don't / I'm too white, I'm too black / I rides waves like boat." Rap and race are recurring themes on the album — rap for reference/reverence's sake (see: "So NY" a very Queens, very '90s kid, very Heems take on Fabolous's not-so-anthemic song of the same name) and race for the sake of identity exploration and assertion.

Hip-hop's dominant narrative is that of the young black male — Heems comes from the margins to give us his perspective. On "Flag Shopping" we get a heavy dose of the aforementioned "post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap": "We're going flag shopping for American flags / They're staring at our turbans, / they're calling them rags / they're calling them towels. / They're more like crowns, let's strike them like vipers." Rarely have hip-hop artists addressed the insidious xenophobia that lumped together Sikhs, Muslims and Hindu and basically any brown person who appeared to be Middle Eastern as Jihadist "threats to the Homeland" and perpetrators of 9/11.

Heems might be his most affecting on "Home," featuring and produced by Dev Hynes. A ballad about powerful attraction and dysfunctional love between Heems and a woman, the tale reaches peak sadness when Heems sing-raps "And company love misery / you with him while you tellin' me you wish it's me. / You addicted to the H-Man / I'm addicted to the H, man," alluding to his own struggles with substance abuse.

Eat Pray Thug
Eat Pray Thug

Eat Pray Thug doesn't resolve. And if complexity sits just fine with you — if you don't like it nice and easy, you like it nice and rough — then this album is what you've been looking for.

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