Review Summary: Relax is great, duh. More importantly, Relax brings new meaning to Das Racist's identity.
They're not joking. Everything about Das Racist's debut album intimates their desire to be taken seriously, not as a joke rap group for white kids to laugh at. That couch featured on their mixtape covers? It's burning behind them on the album cover. Previously, their producers were mostly no-names; Relax
features production from El-P, Diplo, and Rostam from Vampire Weekend, and all of them turn in beats that rank with their best works. Just the fact that Das Racist wants you to pay for their album-- released on their own label-- signifies the importance of this album to them. Oddly, though, the best symbol for their evolution beyond the joke rap of their viral hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" is the album's inclusion of a track from their first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude
: "Rainbow in the Dark". On Shut Up, Dude
, "Rainbow in the Dark" was an attempt at continuity on a mixtape of individual songs, as the first line on the track is "I'm at the White Castle," a direct reference to "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell"'s mindless chorus. On Relax
, it's a representation of Das Racist moving beyond their fame from "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" and onto bigger, better, and more overt themes.
That's not to say that Das Racist have changed their character. They're still mindlessly hilarious (see the too-brief "Happy Rappy"), and figuring out what each reference means will still be a great game for indie kids, though I'm not sure a character as great as Shaun Bridgmohan comes up on Relax
. What has changed is their willingness to commit to thematic ideas for the duration of an album. Laced within Relax
, predictably hidden within obscure reference after obscure reference, is an album about, more or less, asserting racial identity and attacking racism in a post 9-11 world. Kool A.D. addresses his birth name, Victor Vazquez, as his "slave name" on "Selena". "What good is this cashmere if they're still dying in Kashmir? Kushmir-- there was homes, now they're just dust there," Himanshu Suri, or Heems, raps on opening title track "Relax".
Of course, writing cheeky digs at first-world wealth has always been a part of Das Racist's identity, but the production decidedly helps them assert these points, often placing high-end boom bap against chopped up Bollywood-sounding samples, as heard on "Relax", "Michael Jackson", and "Middle of the Cake". But the point is driven home in the indulgent "Punjabi Song", which features American bhangra artist Bikram Singh singing a chorus in Punjabi. It probably makes the most high-profile collaboration between hip-hop and bhangra since Jay-Z's 2003 "Beware of the Boys" remix of Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke". Vazquez doesn't do anything in the production sphere to bring in his Afro-Cuban and Italian heritage, but he's also always identified more as an person of color dealing with America's white-dominated society, whereas Suri, who runs a Tumblr called Nehru Jackets, strongly promotes Indian culture in addition to asserting his Queens upbringing.
With racial undertones dominating much of the album, it would seem that Suri has the dominant, guiding hand in Das Racist. He's the more vocal, relatable emcee, from his infectious, aggressive rasp in "Michael Jackson" to his candid, plain verse on "Girl". The Indian undertones that unite the otherwise spastic production of the album undoubtedly come more from his and hype man Dapwell's influence than Vazquez (Dap is also of Indian descent). But that downplays Vazquez's importance to the Das Racist sound. Although a more relaxed (no pun intended) emcee, Vazquez provides most of the more humorous free associations and veiled references throughout the album. He's also the more technically gifted rapper, with clever wordplay and constant rhyme playing a major part in his flow. In his opening verse on "Relax", he mentions that he used to perform at poetry slams (after calling himself Lady Gaga, a fag, and a lesbian), and that slam poetry influence is constantly evident in his rapping. Vazquez is clearly the more poetic rapper, as seen earlier in "Relax": "The fire and brimstone is known/ To be composed of desire never twice lived/ The metal might miss, but the beveled edge/ Of the mind can provide tricks". There's no point in arguing who matters more to Relax
or Das Racist as a whole; Suri and Vazquez are as compatible as AndrĂ© 3000 and Big Boi at the height of their powers. That's not to say that Das Racist are rapping at the same level as Outkast, but they operate with the same level of teamwork-- certainly capable individually but powerfully potent as a team.
is, more than anything, Das Racist announcing their arrival to hip-hop. They arrived with their mixtapes, but mostly in indie hipster circles. Now, Suri raps about not resting until he "owns a bank to brag about", and they write club-ready jams, however ironic they may be, with songs like "Booty in the Air". But their self-awareness is their key asset, as they slyly muse on "Celebration" about their worth as musicians asking fans to actually pay for their music. "What can I give you that you would actually need?" Vazquez asks. Musically, the track is loosely based on Kool and the Gang's "Celebration", and indeed, their glee with releasing a product as cohesive and as fine-tuned as Relax is evident in their mindless scatting and singing throughout the song. Although Vazquez's question comes on the last track of the album, the preceding material answers the question, proves their worth in the hip-hop community, and proves that Relax
is a product worth paying for. Their unique perspectives on racial and class identities are perspectives that hip-hop needs to remain vital, to remain that genre that united so many other groups throughout the genre's dominating decades. And the best part is that they fulfill that role while still joking.