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Monday, September 12, 2011

Das Racist: Relax (Release Date: 9-13-2011)

        Not a whole lot of promising musical careers start out with joke songs, but Das Racist was never exactly your typical act in the first place. For some reason that remains largely unknown to me, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell was a pretty big internet sensation, endless repetition of the same few words proving hilarious to many. But repetition quickly turned out to be something that Das Racist wasn't much interested in, as their joyous, goofy, brilliant, 17-track, hour-plus long mixtape Shut Up, Dude readily affirmed. The group's Two MCs, Heems (Himanshu Suri) and Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) just so happened to each be in possession of distinctive, fully-formed rapping styles, Heems' aggressive, boisterous enthusiasm pairing perfectly with Kool A.D.'s half-asleep tongue-twisters. Their sheen was not to be diminished when, just Six months later, the duo dropped another mixtape, Sit Down, Man, an even larger (20 Tracks), crazier, and more accomplished collection that was downloaded 40,000 times within its first week of existence. Now, finally, we get our mitts on DR's first-ever proper LP, Relax.

        When lead single Michael Jackson dropped a bit over a month ago, it seemed like the band might be due for a change-up. Unlike the varied and bouncy beats of their mixtapes, the tune featured absolutely pounding instrumentals, filling up every last corner with sound. Perhaps even more noticeable was Heems' new-found growl, his flow taking on a whole new sound, One gritty and gravely. After an abrasive first listen or Two, it's clear to see that Heems' new flow befits the track's bombastic sound, but lazy-old Kool A.D. can sound like he's struggling to keep his head above water in all of the furry. Now we have the whole album, and, as it turns out, Michael Jackson only vaguely informs the disc as a whole.

        As a matter of fact, opener and title track Relax starts the thing off in the exact opposite direction, Vazquez's stream-of-consciousness spewings adorned only by minimal percussion. After a digital-baby-voice chorus reminds us to relax over and over again, Suri gets in on the fun, his voice nearly snarl-free, perhaps recognizing that such a beat wouldn't merit such beastly boasts. Like many songs on the LP, Relax ends in a flurry of odd sounds that somewhat betray the song that came before them, but finding something negative to say about the first half of the tune is much, much more difficult.

        So the relentless mania of Michael Jackson immediately proves to not be pervasive, but that song's new found focus on clearer, more expensive sounding production is echoed through-out Relax, most especially on the disc's first half. Brand New Dance is catchy and all, but its over-stuffed sonics never allow Heems and Kool A.D. to do what they do best, which is just pure flowing wordplay. Middle of the Cake is perhaps a tad more rap-oriented, but its spends an absolutely exhaustive amount of its runtime on a so-so hook, another accusation that could readily be leveled against the CD as a whole.

         In my eyes, Relax only starts to really make good on Das Racist's other-worldly potential on Shut Up, Man, but there are riches aplenty thereafter. Race, always a prominent theme in the rappings of the pair (Suri is of Indian descent, Vazquez both Afro-Cuban and Italian), is addressed in the group's standard playful, witty way when Heem's declares, "They say I act White/But sound Black/But act Black/But sound White/But what's my sound bite supposed to sound like?/I think I sound aight/I think I sound tight." As exemplified here, much of Das Racist's appeal rests in the fact that they bring humor and odd-ball energy to a genre often prone to chest-pounding and self-seriousness. Quoting any of their rhymes is almost superfluous: Lines of idiotic, pop culture and society-skewing brilliance show up by the dozen on every release they've ever come out with, and Relax  is nowhere near an exception to this rule.

        Picking up where Shut Up, Man left off, follow up Happy Rappy is minimal in backing and maximal in slippery loose-association free-styling. Punjabi Song uses a vocal sample of Indian singer Bikram Singh to brilliant effect, again toying with how we've come to contextualize and compartmentalize hip-hop. This is, of course, a band whose last release referenced Grizzly Bear and Pee-Wee Herman within mere seconds, here receiving production from such indie-pop luminaries as Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), and Anand Wilder (Yeasayer). If there are genre walls that still need knocking down, Das Racist is there with a hammer, coaxing laughter and badassery out of American Capitalism, Chicken Sandwiches, and botched pronunciations of John Carpenter in equal measure. If it's not wholly clear by now, I'm a big, big fan of these guys, and while I'm not sure that I find Relax to be the crown jewel of their collection, it's certainly worth more than a few very loud listens.  Their releases have a pronounced tendency to grow on their listeners, far too much word play flying around to be gleaned right away, which is why I find it extremely likely that my already-positive review might grow to be even more ringing as time passes. If you like hip hop, I'd advise you to get your paws on this one asap.

Grade: B+

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