Timely does not even begin to describe the new record from NYC rappers Heems and Riz MC, a.k.a. Swet Shop Boys. While it's depressing as hell, these two dudes seriously could not have picked a better week to drop an album about basic human rights being put up into contention. As the race towards Voting Day continues, it seems like every day, we have new examples of how people in power continue to leverage their platform based not on principle or authority, but on privileges like race and gender. Flying in the face of this, just this week, President Obama co-edited Wired and said "Now is the greatest time to be alive", explaining the vast societal advances we've made over the past fifty, thirty, and even eight years. And thus, we have two sides of a coin, and a choice of which way we want to see the world, for both ourselves, and the neighbor whom we should try and love as we love ourselves. We get plenty of opinions every day on how to reconcile these two sides, but few that ring quite as clearly and effectively as the debut full-length from Swet Shop Boys. Expressed in the form of immense frustration coupled with immense hope for the future, Heems and Riz (joined by producer Redinho) give us Cashmere, the most progressive dance party you'll have this year. It's a visceral and oftentimes brutal glimpse at 2016 life for men of (respectively) Indian and Pakistani heritage living in a weird and somehow unevolving post-9/11 western world.
Heems and Riz come to Cashmere from two really specific places. Last year, Heems made his studio album debut with Eat Pray Thug, a record that adequately captured the complex, multi-faceted existence of an Indian man growing up in post-9/11 New York city. Heems tells stories throughout the record. He remembers his family going flag shopping in late 2001 to make sure their identity and their allegiance are known to neighborhoods quick to assume. Later, he talks about working office jobs, using his given name Himanshu and being told to pick a nickname to not cause a fuss or be a troublemaker. Meanwhile, Riz spent late 2015 and early 2016 contemplating the evolving immigration woes in his country of England. Two months before the Brexit vote, Riz dropped Englistan, a mixtape of nothing but honest thoughts about the feeling of split identity created by the country you love not willing to proclaim the same love back. Coming together, Heems and Riz tackle the US and the UK in the year of Trump and Brexit, and in fitting form, they come to the table with nothing but fire in their eyes and a collective story to tell. Heems comes with Brooklyn rap tenacity and swagger, where Riz tops the amazing, off-kilter Redinho productions with just enough grime know-how to be dangerous. Cashmere runs 34 minutes and 11 songs, with not a single one of its lean and mean moments lost to filler content. It is an endlessly repeatable record full of stories, full of identities, and full of unshakable pride.
While there are many facets of Cashmere that set it far apart from your run-of-the-mill hip-hop record, one particularly striking notion is how many of the songs here have to do with travel. Heems and Riz both have a pretty serious beef with the TSA, spending the whole of "T5" dealing with a "random" search. Later, Heems beefs with the TSA more on "No Fly List" and "Shoes Off", both of which show the juxtaposition of Himanshu's possession of his own identity versus the one he's constantly given at the airport. This freedom to move and freedom to breathe is one that both Heems and Riz feel constantly threatened in their international pursuits in support of their art. Well, unless it plays into somebody else's hand, right? Heems contemplates the expectation of Indian-Americans on "No Fly List". "Oh you rap?" he asks himself sarcastically, "well, you should have been a surgeon". Similarly, Riz raps on "T5", "Trump want my exit, but if he press a red button to watch Netflix, then I'm on". This subjective acceptance of the human behind the profits is something Riz talks about heavily on Englistan. Throughout Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys refuse to be siloed, in the least of all cases, when they take their shoes off at the airport, airport, airport, airport.
Where Heems shines hard on "No Fly List" and "Swish Swish", Riz shows up on "Zayn Malik" and "Half Moghul Half Mowgli". Not only are there incredible one liners ("Even hipsters ain't safe", he raps on "Zayn", "you gotta be careful what part of your face you shave".), there are also some really profound confessions of individual identity that could never come from those without the experience. On "Mowgli", he raps, "My only heroes are black rappers, so to me, Tupac was a true Paki". Riz's expression of culture blend is so relatable - looking up to heroes doing excellent work to motivate yourself towards excellence in your own way. With Cashmere, this pursuit is seen in such a fresh light - one that only Heems and Riz could bring to us right here, right now. At the end of "No Fly List", the two sample a speech from Malala, talking about the incredible potential of India and Pakistan working together through their situation in Kashmir. Obviously, the title of the album is pointed towards this end, showing the immsense potential of understanding our cultural differences and working towards a similar end. Maybe Swet Shop Boys can bring this message to their home countries in this immense time of need.
Cashmere is out now on Customs. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl - the art is gorgeous. Heems and Riz have a couple dates on the books in November, but nothing in Seattle yet. Check their Facebook for emerging details.
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