Heems stands in an American arts landscape short on voices that reflect the challenges people of Muslim and Hindu descent face in our society. But that’s not to say that Eat Pray Thug is a great album.
On his debut solo album, Himanshu Suri, better known as Heems, revisits in striking detail the horror and disbelief he felt as a Manhattan high school student watching the Twin Towers collapse. Many New York artists have shared similar 9/11 tales. What sets apart the former Das Racist rapper’s story is how he illuminates the myriad terrors that befell people of Muslim and Hindu faith in the post-9/11 world.
Muslim and Hindus wrapped themselves in the red, white and blue and declared in unison they were not like Osama, as Heems details on the brilliant “Flag Shopping” and later on closing track “Patriot Act”. It did not matter. The terrorist attacks resulted in losses of business, freedom, dignity and safety for those whose skin color, religion or heritage remotely matched those of the 9/11 attackers. Heems portrays the non-violent people around him as proud Americans with proud traditions (see: his line equating turbans with crowns on “Flag Shopping”), not merely as victims of prejudice and ignorance.
In these moments, Heems, a practicing Hindu, stands not only as an important voice in hip-hop but also in an American arts landscape short on voices that reflect the challenges people of Muslim and Hindu descent face in our society. But that’s not to say that Eat Pray Thug is a great album.
Eat Pray Thug arose out of the ashes of joke-rap trio Das Racist’s brief moment of Internet-inspired fame. For Heems, the ruins that lay in the absurdist group’s aftermath included broken relationships with his bandmates and women, struggles with fleeting fame and substance and mental health-related woes. According to a recent Village Voice cover feature, the serial jokester’s serious turn was inspired in part by a trip to his parent’s native India. The article describes the 29-year-old as having one foot in multiple worlds, be they America and India or the intellectual world and the street. His album’s opening track “Sometimes,” with emphasis on “duality,” makes it clear that that where he stands is always in flux.
With its grab bag lyrical and sonic style, Eat Pray Thug feels like his two preceding mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom. Almost half the 11 songs reference 9/11, Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. The Queens resident also delivers auto-tuned heartbreak (“Damn, Girl), boasts of his Big Apple bonafides (“So NY”) and moments of sheer obnoxiousness (“Hubba Hubba”). But when he strays from the persona of an enlightened voice of oppressed peoples, to the persona of a sad and jilted ex, he loses his fastball. The track list seems to be assembled at random, and doesn’t help explain how these different pieces of the same artistic puzzle align.
Backing instrumentals give Heems ample space and spotlight but rarely stand out. The hulking bass and hypnotic piano loop of “Flag Shopping” is a clear exception. Elsewhere, skeletal beats share the stage with trap-inspired bangers, overproduced pop (titled “Pop Song” with a wink) and the funky and stylish guitar tones of Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes on “Home,” another album highlight.
Eat Pray Thug is less than the sum of its parts, recalling Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers, another recent rap album that wedded astute political observations with half-baked attempts at rap-pop crossovers. At times, Heems sounds like no one else in hip-hop today, but there are moments when he sounds like a lounge act, or worse, Drake karaoke. His transition to serious rapper is still a work in progress, and he admits as much on “Sometimes”: “I could use more clarity.” Amen to that.