7. Das Racist – Relax [US]
White devils like it. You’re a rap crew educated at Wesleyan, exposed to the world by a joke dance song about fast food and you’re actually called Das Racist, and that’s the line you choose to open your debut album. There’s a lot in those first four words though. It might say ‘confrontation’, in the sense that white people are devils and they can fuck off. It might say ‘guilt’, in the sense that the natural fanbase for pop art raps about products and identity politics turned out to be the white people they were (only sometimes) attacking. It might say college. It might say humour. It might imply that they’re engaging in some uncomfortable cultural appropriation of their own. It possibly says all of that, but the point is it definitely connotes.
It’s annoying to think of an album in a purely heady way, but the way Das Racist present themselves and the way they slid to prominence might demand it. When Relax came out, it wasn’t an album to listen to with fresh ears, it was the thing that Das Racist were finally willing to stand behind, supposedly free of the excuses that could save the often lazy-sounding, patchy mixtapes. Much as you might like to ignore them, they’re fascinating. Witness Heems go through his questions on Tumblr hammering the paste shortcut with the words ‘wet dog’ in all caps because everyone kept saying “I’m white and I think you are being rude to your fans”. Witness them venture a joke about John Boehner to a New York Times journalist who responds by saying she that that sort of thing is why she never asks rappers questions about politics as if they’d just uncovered the gay mafia that runs the entertainment industry. They are internet-era public figures who happen to rap. And if it’s worth hearing what they have to say about burgers and glasses of water, it’s worth at least checking out what they’re presenting as a debut album.
It’s a minefield, really. The album, not the broader cultural presence. It’s rife with ill-fitting juxtapositions and even when they work, it’s never comfortable. In fact, it’s only good when it’s not comfortable. The beats, some contributed by members of bands like Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer, are broadly indie-sounding, even touching the reprehensible chillwave at times. They snap, sometimes, like when El-P or Danny Brown need something resembling an actual rap beat to go over. But mostly they don’t. Kool A.D.’s complex flow fits any beat simply by filling it with syllables, mostly dripping in irony and sometimes even delivered in a half-laugh. It’s indigestible to call it postmodern so, as lay music fans, maybe we should stick to “throwing shit at a wall”. Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes it slides off, but rarely in an offensively bad way. Heems on the other hand, with a huskier rap voice possibly developed especially for this record, either nails it or sounds lost. When he nails it, he’s a hundred times the rapper Kool A.D. is with half the word count.
It’s easy to pick out the songs where the stars align and both just rap good verses without disappearing into either failed shit-at-a-wall collage or hectoring. I have no idea if it’s bad critical practice for me to just list them, but here they are: Relax, Michael Jackson, Middle Of The Cake and Rainbow In The Dark. Kool A.D. goes in especially on the first two, in slightly different ways. On the first one (or ‘the eponymous opener’), he presents Das Racist, as alluded to earlier, in scrapbook form. White devils, coffee, fire and brimstone, bringing light to the kids, the word ‘negro’, being an idiot, maybe getting more popular, Abramovic, Lady Gaga, the word ‘fag’, the Wesleyan, a poetry slam. With various levels of mockery. Aimed at himself and the listener. In an undiscernable ratio. On Michael Jackson it seems slightly less deft, just a string of cool-sounding bullshit, but then what was the verse on Relax? It is hard to find the line, especially when it’s probably not there to be found at all. When it works it, it’s self-evident.
Heems’ highlights are as the moments where he sounds like he feels it, in an immediate sense and not just a general one. On Relax, it goes from background story/identity politics to an aggressive present/identity politics as he growls “I ain’t backin’ out till I own a bank to brag about” and from then on he murders it. The moments aren’t all necessarily political righteousness though, they’re just the parts where he spits the line you remember. The parody brag “known to rock the flyest shit and eat the best pizza,” on Rainbow In The Dark, semi-disowned as meaningless joke music recently (although again, where the fuck is the line?), is cool. Outside of the violent self-definition on Relax, his verse on Middle Of The Cake hits the nail on the head. It’s direct, it’s never clumsy, he fits identity shit in without it sounding forced and he says good shit, like using Fran Drescher as a metaphor for money.
Middle Of The Cake just about evades being annoying for being agenda rap, but other songs don’t, not because agenda rap’s a problem per se, but just because they’re not as good. Brand New Dance is secondary school-level sarcasm (“it’s a brand new dance, give us all your money/everybody, love everybody”). Power feels aimless before Danny Brown comes in and provides an actual, normal rap verse about spending money and getting his dick sucked. Other songs have their own problems. They all have high points – quotables especially – but they have problems too. I am going to strategically ignore the songs that are either genre parody or self-indulgence. They’re alright, but they’re profoundly out of place, and they can fuck off.
But Relax is, above all else, engaging. It’s pleasant to listen to, even if ‘pleasant’ doesn’t sound like a compliment. It is definitely flawed. Pitchfork had a point in bringing up the “incomplete framework of a record meant to be aesthetically unified and audience-dividing”. But that’s partly why it’s so engaging. A uniform success in artistic terms would seem almost crude coming from Das Racist at this point. Yes, you could easily pare off a couple of tracks and there’s a recurring urge to take the red pen to certain lines and ideas, correcting and improving, but it’s the gamble that makes it exciting when it works. The arrogant disinterest they try to project actually ends up creating a sort of vulnerability, especially for Heems, who can suck really badly when he doesn’t get it exactly right. The confusion created by the sometimes meaningless flows and the ideas that don’t quite come off is the atmosphere that defines the album, and it’s that that makes the high points seem really, really high. It’s a reassuring sign that there’s no autopilot. That is enough, somehow, to compensate for everything that’s wrong.
Das Racist – Relax