Politically motivated hip hop, in the eyes of most onlookers, is a concept so outdated it shares a graveyard with cassette tapes and shell suits. There’s no room for it in the modern era, they say, because a rapper engaging political discussion would be about as worthwhile as earphones for a deaf person; and so naturally, the topic is avoided.
And that’s what makes Eat, Pray, Thug so memorable. Heems, formerly of Das Racist, brings a powerful, prejudicially-charged voice on American culture that’s completely refreshing throughout many of the 11 tracks.
Unafraid to discuss the preconceptions and bigotry surrounding those of his South Asian descent that followed 9/11, Himanshu Suri speaks out against the pain suffered by his race on show-stealing productions ‘Flag Shopping’ and the album’s finale, ‘Patriot Act’.
On the former, Suri adopts a drunken drawl over a creepy combination of piano and bass, confessing his struggle since the 2001 attacks, mouthing sentiments that would have even the most xenophobic American reconsider their stance. ‘The towers hit the planes, I guess it was written/But now they all looking at us different’ he ponders.
‘Patriot Act’, a name referencing the controversial, privacy-invading bill George Bush passed through Congress 14 years ago, tells Heems’ tale of witnessing the destruction first hand as a schoolboy. The simple line “the towers fell in front of my eyes, and I remember the principal said they wouldn’t” holds huge weight when imagining the panic he must have experienced at such a tender age. Along with sentiments such as “power for off shore drilling, pirates plunder, pillage, killing civilians, counting currencies millions, politics make victims for income”, you’ll be powerless to prevent being engaged in the track.
The disturbing irony of Heems’ declaration of love for his home city, New York, in spite of the discrimination he and his community suffered after the towers’ collapse also makes for intriguing listening on ‘So NY’. On it, with the assistance of the stuttering, distorted “I’m so NY, I’m heavy in the streets”, the 29-year-old spits “Had to leave Williamsburg and all the white drama/ Had to leave my home, they kept calling me Osama/ Had to leave my home cos of drones and Obama”. That elucidation is emblematic of Eat, Pray, Thug’s prevalent troubled, pent-up anger, the type of which you won’t observe on many records in the coming months.
Weirdly however, that isn’t the exclusive theme of the album, with Suri strangely opting for intervals of love-centred tunes, including the strangely positioned ‘Damn, Girl’, in which he channels PartyNextDoor with echoing vocals facilitated by auto-tune battling the click-clack of the riff in and out of his verses. Whilst its story of a girl harassing him after a break up isn’t the worst you’ll hear, its late night R&B style probably shouldn’t be on the LP.
Similarly ‘Pop Song’, the Duke Dumont-esque, tropical production located bang in the middle of the album and directly after the previously mentioned, heavily political ‘Flag Shopping’, sees Suri temporarily wrestle himself off a captivating political path and onto one of manufactured, uninspired foundations.
His confusion, though, is the only valid criticism of work that possesses arguably surprising maturity and inspiration from an artist who brought the world ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ in 2008. His voice is both musically and politically compelling and while naturally not the crowd-pleasing work that many will find easier to listen to, Eat, Pray, Thug deserves immense praise for its challenging and thought-provoking concepts, and the formidable bravery to even attempt them.
Politics in hip hop, if Heems has anything to do with it, is very much alive. Now where’s my shell suit?