Album Review of Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys.
Release Date: Oct 14, 2016
Record label: Customs
There's a lot to like about Swet Shop Boys full-length debut, Cashmere. It clocks in at a tight, well-edited, filler-free 38 minutes; it's full of three-minute gems that get your head nodding and your brain working hard to parse multi-layered metaphors, and that stop when you're still wanting more. The production, courtesy of British beatsmith Redinho, is a singular blend of South Asian instrumental samples and chiptune bleeps.What really makes Cashmere, though, is the contrasting styles of Swet Shop Boys' two MCs, British rapper Rizwan "Riz MC" Ahmed — best known to North Americans as Naz from HBO's The Night Of — and Das Racist alum Heems.
It's a dense and lyrically challenging record, as you would expect from two highly intelligent individuals who have lived through the bars they deliver, but it ends on their most salient point: "Can't escape yourself, please love yourself," Riz MC's final words on "Din-e-llahi." They serve as a reminder to anyone fighting the tide of prejudice: don't give in and definitely don't blame yourself. In this context, there aren't a lot of musical places you could turn to find that sentiment. Now, at least, Swet Shop Boys have created one more.
There’s a bar on ‘Zayn Malik’ that Queens rapper Himanshu ‘Heems’ Suri drops, summing up what Swet Shop Boys’ ‘Cashmere’ is all about. It’s one that South Asians - those from the diaspora and who grew up in the late 90s and early 00s - will intuitively get: “Yo, I’m bumpin’ André hey ya, hey ya / Now I’m bumpin’ chal chaiyya chaiyya.” It’s a knowing hat-tip to the concept of hybridity, of an identity that embraces both Shah Rukh Khan movies and Atlanta hip-hop, of pairing sari tops with jeans and trainers, of being a 1st/2nd/3rd gen. immigrant who’s from here, there and somehow nowhere, but who knows who they are and who reps their mixed-up mongrel self all the same.
Even just on paper, Heems and Riz MC are perfect foils for one another. Heems is a rapper (and former member of Das Racist) of Indian descent, though his family has roots in Pakistan. Riz is a rapper (and actor increasingly known for his role in HBO's “The Night Of”) of Pakistani descent whose family history can be traced back over the Indian side of the border.
In the midst of one of the most polarizing political moments in history, wherein vile bigotry and baseless panic have become commonplace, an album from a joint Indian-Pakistani rap duo could not possibly be more essential. Swet Shop Boys are Queens-bred rapper Heems and London’s own Riz Ahmed, rapper, actor, general jack-of-all-trades. Over the last few years, Heems formed and dissolved Das Racist, released subsequent solo projects, and trotted the globe, while Ahmed found time to grow a healthy rap reputation while also ascending the acting ranks, starring in a hit HBO drama (The Night Of) and a Star Wars film (Rogue One).
Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, is a Queens-born rapper formally of the wonderful rap trio Das Racist. Along with fellow Das Racist-members rapper Kool A.D. and hypeman Dapwell, Suri made beautiful music that felt accidental. Riddled with pop culture references and jokes that leavened their complicated intent the lyrics skewered everything from American rappers and singers use of patois in their songs to the internet’s geeky embrace of hip-hop culture.
The pairing of Himanshu Kumar Suri and Rizwan Ahmed, aka Heems (formerly of Das Racist) and Riz MC(HBO’s The Night Of), is a rewarding one. Comprised of a Pakistani and an Indian, the self-aware Swet Shop Boys form an unlikely duo that capitalizes on contrast, both musical and cultural. Teeming with political undertones and civil issues, their debut, Cashmere wields its views over a collection of animated instrumentals that dip into hip-hop and grime, as well as Bollywood and qawwali music.