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Indian-American rapper Heems (Himanshu Suri) has just released his first solo album. Prior to Eat Pray Thug, the former third of New York rap trio Das Racist (RIP) had only released two mixtapes: Nehru Jackets in early 2012, and Wild Water Kingdom in November of the same year. Since then Heems has been travelling and touring. He spent a large amount of time in India attempting to reconnect with his heritage, and it was over three days in Mumbai that he wrote and recorded most of the album.
The influence of the time spent in India is clear; by removing himself from New York Heems allowed himself to reflect on the duality of his existence, having “lived two lives, an Indian one and an American one”. This becomes a preoccupation in the opening track, “Sometimes”, which is boisterous, shifting between lyrical ups and downs to a quivering, intense beat. On it he raps: “how to live life when my life all duality/ this is how I live it man, this is my reality”. Reality for Heems is dual, Indian and American. It is his attempts to reconcile with this identity that makes Eat Pray Thug so interesting.
This is partly because growing up Indian is not so simple in post-9/11 America. In the second track “So NY”, a shout out to his hip-hop roots, he is in conflict about being “so New York he doesn’t bump Tupac”, but having been also caught in the “white drama” of having to move home because “they kept calling me Osama”. On “So NY” we are witness to Heems’s confusion about his identity. His stance shifts a couple songs later on “Flag Shopping”, where he clearly aligns himself against the white American xenophobia toward people of South Asian origin. Heems, backed into a corner and rapping over a minimal beat and ominous piano riff, uses hip-hop as medium to speak from the margins: “they’re staring at our turbans/ they’re calling them rags/ they’re calling them towels/ they’re calling them diapers/ they’re more like crowns/ let’s strike them like vipers”.
The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are inseparable from life as Indian-American, which Heems explores on this album in a depth not seen on his earlier mixtapes. The satirical “Al Q8a”, and the NYPD-condemning “Suicide by Cop” challenge racial discrimination and policing. The closing track of the album, “Patriot Act”, takes Heems further, exploring the real heartbreak of 9/11. With his voice quavering slightly, he dedicates the closing verse of both the song and the album to the isolation of being seen as another “Osama”; to the anxiety of being branded a “trouble-maker” by “blue uniformed” authorities; and to the fear of losing friends of family through deportation and hate crimes. Throughout the album he uses his voice to convey the devastation that befell communities of non-white US citizens, creating what he describes as “post-9/11 dystopian brown man rap”.
Yet Eat Pray Thug is not all racial politics. In a recent tweet Heems suggested that the album is concerned with “heartbreak, of the romantic type and the sociopolitical type”. There is a prominent romantic narrative to the album, one that explores the final stages of a flailing relationship. In “Damn, Girl”, an RnB influenced track, Heems sings about a relationship he wants no part of but cannot end, stating, “me, I’m weak you know that” while also trying to tell the (presumably) ex-lover to leave him “the fuck alone”. A soft voiced Heems touches on the euphoria of a reunion on the aptly named “Pop Song (Games)”, with the earlier conflicts being simply “games that all young lovers do”. However it all deflates on the next track “Home” where a miserable Heems raps two short verses over the beautiful production of Blood Orange (Dev Hynes). It is perhaps the standout track of the album. Heems is at his most melancholy, his most reflective and his most insightful. The track is a soliloquy on a love now doomed that lingers and haunts him: “I regret you/ you can say our love was regretful/ you got me, I get you/ if I could I’d forget you/ but I can’t since I left you”.
During an interview with the New York Times Heems described this album as “the most personal work I’ve ever done”. There is no doubt that it is. His life is the material, with no area untapped. Romance vies with identity for space on the album, while the politics of race and 9/11 loom large. Overall it is well paced with upbeat tracks like “Jawn Cage” and “Hubba Hubba” offering relief from the omnipresent heartbreak. The production is tight with producers ranging from Harry Fraud to Boody B, and lyrically Heems is at his best. Eat Pray Thug is a fantastic album, profoundly moving and full of resilience—definitely worth a listen.