The biggest talk coming out of Das Racist’s impressive 2010—two mixtapes (Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) and spots on many end of the year lists– was whether or not a label would take a wild gamble on their inventive, humorous, thought-provoking, and damn-near perfect version of rap music, and how long Das Racist would have to sit on that label’s shelf when they turned in a LP. The mind still spins at what Das Racist would sound like with notes from Jimmy Iovine, but for the sake of all of us, Das Racist went the indie route: they’re self-releasing their first official LP Relax via Heems’ own Greedhead label.
It’s a testament to Das Racist’s wild tenacity that Relax is able to distill their frenetic mixtape masterpieces into a 14-track LP. From top-to-bottom, this is arguably the first total success of mixtape rappers transitioning to LPs without weakness. All the things that made these guys artists to be dealt with in 2008 with “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is evident on Relax. There are songs with random (and unshakeable) hooks that seem like the group doesn’t care (“Selena,” “Middle of the Cake” “Michael Jackson,”), tracks showing off an ability to rap over anything (“Punjabi Song,” “Girl,”), hilarious loverjam raps (“Booty in the Air”), and tracks that place them on a continuum with the NY underground rap that they’re excluded from due to that first single (“Shut Up, Dude,” “Power,” “Rainbow in the Dark”). That last one is maybe the most startling revelation of Relax: 10 years ago, these guys would have had to hang out at Fat Beats and heckle people to listen to them. But thanks to a viral single they’ve since disowned, they’re allowed the creative freedom to make a tremendous album that dodges any of the compromises you assume have to happen for groups like this when they try to make an album.
In some ways the “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” pigeonhole saved us from many ponderous pieces about the novelty of a rap group lead by a half-Cuban and an Indian dude, and what race means in hip-hop. But it also made people skeptical that Das Racist were anything more than a precursor to LMFAO, when they’re playing on a different playing field. It’s hard to name any group that better replicates the flowing information stream that is modern life, as Das Racist pepper their songs with references upon references, so somehow Fran Drescher, the menu at Gisele Bundchen’s house, a particular type of Palm phone, Selena, Ronnie James Dio, Mrs. Doubtfire, Budweiser, Roombas, Michael Jackson, Brahma statues, the price of a hovercraft, among many other things, all become totally rational things to be mentioned in rap songs. Das Racist are imminently quotable and inventive with language, and attempting to catalog all of the great lines would make this into a novella.
But at the same time, if you spend more than one listen with Relax, or with the group’s two mixtapes, you realize the quotable lines and the references to the ephemera of the 21st century are a Trojan horse delivery system for some of the most trenchant discussions of race in any popular culture. Ideas about race permeate the edges of all Das Racist songs, with references to being tan, being different and the implications of taking a black art form performed by an Indian and a Cuban in front of white “demons” weigh heavy on the group. Whether Heems is saying, “they say I act white but sound black but sound white but act black, but what’s my soundbite supposed to sound like” on “Shut Up, Dude,” or Kool A.D. is calling Rap Genius “white devil sophistry” and saying Urban Dictionary “is for demons with college degrees” on “Middle of the Cake,” it’s just as easy to read Das Racist as a group who raps about race that sometimes mentions fast food chains as the other way around. Das Racist have somehow managed to trick people into thinking about race in the middle of songs with hooks like “Michael Jackson, a million dollars, feel me? Holler.” For that, they should be lauded.
It’s worth mentioning that all of this would fall apart if Das Racist weren’t two of the most entertaining MCs out today. Heems and Kool A.D. might be deconstructing rap for the purposes of delivering ingenious and challenging verses, but Relax is one of the best capital R rap albums out this year. If you bailed on this group around the time of the fiftieth remix of “Combination,” it’s time to get back on board. You’re missing more than you know.