Album review: Das Racist, 'Relax' (Greedhead LLC)

September 27, 2011

Those of us who bemoan the lack of wildly inventive, playfully psychedelic hip-hop on the current music scene have nearly given up hope of ever encountering another effort as wonderfully mind-blowing as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, much less the Beastie Boys’ epic Paul’s Boutique.

After all, no lesser authorities than the Dust Brothers and the Beasties themselves have said it simply would be impossible to create music like that today, given the harsh restrictions on sampling that have since been instituted, to say nothing of the commercial concerns that daunt many rappers trying to strike any pose that isn’t “gangsta.”

This is not to say that Relax—the first official album from the three Brooklynites in Das Racist following the acclaimed 2010 mix tapes Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man (lauded on Sound Opinions here)—is quite as brilliant as the aforementioned classics. But it does comes pretty damn close, providing a disorienting but exhilarating musical and lyrical rollercoaster ride through a world that is extremely funny (as opposed to jokey), often absurd, self-consciously hip, and broadly multi-cultural (as befits a project by two Asian Indian-Americans and their friend of Afro-Cuban and Italian descent).

You want laugh-out-loud pop-culture references from victims of non-stop media saturation/overdose? You got ’em! Off the top of my head, there’s killer nods to Chris Farley, Otis Redding, Johnny Depp (as Rango, no less), the old “how many licks?” catchphrase from Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pops commercials, Michael Jackson, Jeff Mangum, “Wikipedia Brown,” pizzas and White Castle burgers, T-Pain, Stephen Hawking, Ronnie James Dio, “jam bands up at Wesleyan,” Maury Povich, John Carpenter… we could go on, and on, and on, but let’s just focus for a moment on how the fellas address one of the best (sacred to all!) rock albums of the ’90s.

“Yo, yo, this s--- is too much, kid!/ One day I’ll roll up and be like, ‘What up, kid?’” they rhyme in “Happy Rappy.” “I’m fitter, happier, more productive/Until then I lay home and bump this ‘Loveless’/Yeah, that’s My Bloody Valentine/Forty cracker, don’t call it My Bloody Balentine/Call it My Bloody County Club.”

Is Das Racist celebrating the Valentines, or dissing them? Are they mocking Brooklyn hipsters who love the legendary shoegazers, or confessing that they themselves are Brooklyn hipsters who love them? Do they hate “happy rap,” or champion it? Are these lines and others heavy with meaning—the rappers considering where they fit… on the current music scene, in color- and class-conscious New Millennial America, and in life in general—or is it all just stoner silliness with no meaning at all?

Yes. To all of the above. And then some.

The lyrical goal for primary rappers Heems and Kool A.D. and their hypeman friend Dapwell is a lightning-quick dumping of their hard-drive ids and egos, and they do it much better—and in a much more inclusive, funny, and effective way—than that other alleged recent champion of the form, Odd Future’s Tyler the Creator. “White devils like it,” is the first line on the album. Are the rappers conflicted about that, or eager to make bank on it? Are lines such as “What good is this Cashmere/If they’re still dying in Kashmir?” more or less sincere than “Lakutis the clean-up hitter/Call him the pooper scooper/Alec an Oompa Loompa/Retutor the school of looters/Hakuna matata Pumba/Por que esta es la rumba/Yeah, I'm f---ing great at rapping!"

Again: Yes, to all of the above, and then some. And the music is just as much of a giddy, absurd, and mind-boggling ride.

There’s a vintage videogame soundtrack meets even more vintage circus calliope quality to these incredibly dense, ever-shifting, consistently genre-hopping backing tracks; think of the Bomb Squad high on Ecstasy (the favored pharmaceutical inspiration of My Bloody Valentine, by the way). In this context, a satirical (or is it?) club banger like “Booty in the Air” makes as much sense as the anthemic hip-pop single “Michael Jackson” or the digitized bhangra jam “Punjabi Song.” And they all combine for a startling unique listening experience the depths of which we’re unlikely to plumb for some time, though we’re certain to have a blast trying.

On the four-star scale: 4 STARS

STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION

Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Sub Pop)

Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (Sub Pop)

Washed Out, Within and Without (Sub Pop)

Ty Seagall, Goodbye Bread (Drag City)

Sons & Daughters, Mirror Mirror (Domino)

The Cool Kids, When Fish Ride Bicycles (Green Label Sound)

The Go! Team, Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries)

F*cked Up, David Comes to Life (Matador)

Ponytail, Do Whatever You Want All the Time (We Are Free)

Damon & Naomi, False Beats and True Hearts (20-20-20)

Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin (Rodriguez Lopez Productions)

Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

Bewitched Hands, Birds and Drums (Look Mum No Hands)

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol)

tUnE-yArDs, WHOKILL (4AD)

Gorillaz, The Fall (Virgin)

The Feelies, Here Before (Bar None)

TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light (Interscope)

Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)

Screeching Weasel, First World Manifesto (Fat Wreck Chords)

Lupe Fiasco, Lasers (Atlantic)

Lucinda Williams, Blessed (Lost Highway)

Radiohead, The King of Limbs (self-released)

Drive-By Truckers,Go-Go Boots (ATO)

North Mississippi Allstars, Keys to the Kingdom (Songs of the South)

Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)