Beyond Black and White: How Heems’ ‘Eat, Pray, Thug’ Expands Hip Hop’s Conversation About Race

Queens rapper Himanshu “Heems” Suri’s just-released Eat, Pray, Thug is a grand opening and, it would seem, a grand closing. It’s the snarky rhymer’s debut solo album after a string of releases in and out of the incendiary, serially misunderstood group Das Racist, which seemed to come together on a lark and crumble just as subtly over the span of four or five years. As Das Racist’s multimedia experiment shrinks in our rearview, the motives remain unclear but the gains are valuable, particularly from the perspective of diversity. Heems picks up here where the group left off.

Rap’s discussion of race has hinged largely on the axis of black and white America for decades, but Das Racist offered two or three more vantage points from which to discuss compound otherness in a city that prides itself on diversity. Kool A.D., an Afro-Cuban Italian Bay Area native, joined Dapwell and Heems, sons of Indian immigrants who settled in New York City’s outer boroughs, in ribbing the city’s downtown cool economy from the inside. But that’s over now, and so, Heems has hinted, is his career as a rapper.

“Had to leave Williamsburg and all the white drama,” he explains on the Harry Fraud-produced Eat, Pray, Thug highlight “So NY.” For years you’d see him sliding through music scene events both singularly jocular and well dressed, and somehow, faintly, not really there at all. Heems has been open on social media and in recent interviews about depression and anxiety diminishing his quality of life post-Das Racist. Eat, Pray, Thug wryly charges into the thick of the darkness as stray lines about grappling with substance abuse color in the rest of the picture. “Sometimes I need a hit, sometimes I need to get/ A little something heavy to deal with all the shit,” he says on opener “Sometimes.”

Most of Eat, Pray, Thug was conceived during a five-month trek to India. It’s tempting to call it a spiritual journey, and Heems knowingly plays at the idea with the album’s title, a nod to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. But this isn’t some Darjeeling Limited soul safari through magical brown people’s rejuvenating warmth. Eat, Pray, Thug is a retreat from the neurotic crucible of a loveless city, a dip into the well of Suri’s own heritage, and a look at the clarity he’s had since returning to New York. The fact that Heems now lives with his family — a touch removed from the endless dark of the nightlife — grants these missives a personal edge that his early releases only toyed with.

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The album’s most gutting lyrics deal with the struggles of being Indian in a nation whose South Asian and Middle Eastern communities are casually treated as indistinct masses of post-9/11 brown danger as while Bush’s Iraq War blazes on. “They’re staring at our turbans, they’re calling them rags, they’re calling them towels,” he snarls on “Flag Shopping,” a remembrance of Hindu and Sikh families fearfully displaying their patriotism when white neighbors began to turn on Muslim communities and anyone deemed to resemble them. Closer “Patriot Act” digs deeper as Heems details the changes in language, dress and behavior many Indian Americans enacted to evade undue suspicion of terrorism. “Suicide by Cop” decries police brutality in its chorus; and “Al Q8a” is a knotty, provocative metaphor comparing his own rap prowess to weaponry in the hands of the hands of Middle Eastern dissidents.

Eat, Pray, Thug wisely peppers its racial invective with moments of summery abandon. Light-hearted lyrical workouts like “Hubba Hubba” and “Jawn Cage” flex the greatest technical ease Heems has ever shown on the mic, while singsong EDM cuts “Damn, Girl” and “Pop Song (Games)” suggest Heems dug more of the dippy dance grooves of Das Racist’s polarizing swan song Relax than we thought he did. The more whimsical material harks back to the early days of Heems’ “rapper experiment,” both in sound and function. He’s most engaged when he’s spitballing kooky ideas sometimes, though the sprawl can give Eat, Pray, Thug a casual, disjointed feel that belies its rather brief running time.

If this is Heems’ swan song as a recording entity, he’s going out the same way he came in: mystifying, troubled, engaging, and entertaining. His perspective will be missed; records like Eat, Pray, Thug and 2012’s Nehru Jackets don’t breach the rap community consciousness often. Hip-hop needs artists like Heems tossing sidewinders into our shortsighted, America-centric discourse. He’ll come back. They always come back.