Heems Returns With Haunting ‘Eat Pray Thug’

Heems

New York – We missed Heems. He put out two excellent mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom, in 2012, just before the official dissolution of his group Das Racist that December. Until Eat Pray Thug, his only musical endeavor since the breakup was a collaborative EP with London rapper Riz MC under the moniker Swet Shop Boys that didn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserved. Now, after long delays, label drama, and personal turmoil, Eat Pray Thug is finally out, and it serves as a reintroduction of Himanshu Suri as a serious artist, full of pain and fire and contradiction.

Those contradictions are laid out as sort of a thesis statement on opening track “Sometimes,” where Heems details the multitudes he contains (“sometimes I care a lot, usually I don’t even care”). He lines up the dualities that will occur over and over throughout Eat Pray Thug: American native vs. Indian immigrant, white vs. brown, art vs. commerce, love vs. war. One contradiction left over from the Das Racist days, joking vs. not joking, is mostly settled by Eat Pray Thug: Heems is serious. He still has a sense of humor, but the stoner wordplay and arch sarcasm of Das Racist is gone, replaced by anger and sadness. On “Jawn Cage,” he flips Das Racist’s signature free-associative style from lackadaisical to pissed-off.

Eat Pray Thug is haunted by addiction, romantic failure, and 9/11. References to Heems’ problems with drugs and alcohol come up over and over. On “Hubba Hubba” he raps “cut lines of that yay-yay on that Big Book from AA,” a throwaway line as despairing and telling as “used to play basketball, then we started drinking,” from Das Racist’s “Amazing.” Those two lines answer each other, showing the beginning of addiction and where it ends up. As of now, Heems is apparently clean-ish, but on Eat Pray Thug, the struggle is immediate and tenuous. He sounds like he’s struggling with trying to get sober in real time. It’s never the primary focus of any of the songs, but addiction’s tendrils creep into much of the album.

Romantic failure comes up most directly on the gorgeous, aching “Home.” Over a lush beat by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Heems sing-raps about the end of a relationship (he split up with a girlfriend of two years around the same time of Das Racist’s breakup). The self-described “nervous MC” has never sounded so vulnerable. “Home” is a very different type of song than Heems has ever done, and the experiment pays off.

Heems was a student at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School on 9/11, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. “I was there, I saw the towers and I saw the planes, and I’ll never be the same, never ever be the same” he raps on “Flag Shopping,” a song about buying American flags with his family after the attacks, both to mourn and show genuine solidarity and to demonstrate American-ness as an attempt at self-protection.

On closing track “Patriot Act,” in gravelly, heartbreakingly direct spoken word, he recounts his immediate post-9/11 experiences, when his school became a triage site and he became fully aware of his outsider status. All of a sudden his neighbors were suspicious of him and all other brown people, Muslim or not (“the Sikh man on the bus was Osama”), and how the racism he experienced denied him of the pain he felt, as a New Yorker and an American. He talks about his friend’s father being deported, and FBI harassment, and how he worries about his parents and they worry about him. It’s grim and bleak and offers no answers. It ends the album on an effectively dark note.

 Heems Album

Not all of Eat Pray Thug is successful. On “Al Q8a,” Heems is an unconvincing tough guy. The tonal shift from “Flag Shopping” to the literally named “Pop Song (Games)” is incredibly jarring, but I guess Heems gets away with it, because he already said he contradicts himself. But even in its weaker moments, it’s great to have Heems back. He recently got a day job and has made some noise about quitting music after this, but we hope he doesn’t. His voice is too valuable.

Eat Pray Thug is out March 10 from Megaforce. The album is currently streaming on NPR First Listen. Follow Heems on Twitter.

Liam Mathews

Liam Mathews

Liam grew up in Rosendale, NY, a little town in the Hudson Valley. Now he lives in Brooklyn. He has a degree in nonfiction writing from The New School. He mostly writes about music, comedy, and style, but he can write about a lot of things. He's written for Playboy, Fast Company, Nerve, and a lot of other places. He's real good at Twitter.
Liam Mathews