Words About Music
The cleverly named hip-hop duo known as Swet Shop Boys is the collaborative effort between New York-based rapper Heems, formerly of acclaimed post-modern-rap group Das Racist, and London-based rapper/actor Riz MC, a.k.a. Riz Ahmed, who you may know from such works as “Nightcrawler,” “Star Wars: Rogue One,” and the HBO series “The Night Of.” I first came across these guys last year when they, along with producer Redinho, dropped their debut album “Cashmere,” an album I enjoyed for its political themes and humorous lyrics but that didn’t quite stick with me as much as Heems’ material with Das Racist or his solo material.
Still, as a diehard D.R. fan, I’m always looking out for what any of those guys are doing, and I was thrilled to see that a Record Store Day EP by the Swet Shop Boys was seeing a digital release. “Sufi La” is the name of this 6-song EP, and at 15 minutes in length, even if you hate it, it shouldn’t be a huge waste of your time.
This EP kicks off with “Anthem,” a bombastic banger that reminds me of Run the Jewels, especially with Heems’ and Riz’s charisma. I dig this opening cut for sure, and it’s got some classically great one-liners and gags from both of these dudes, but as usual it’s undercut with serious themes of racism and Islamophobia. Riz embraces his Pakistani heritage, rapping: “I’m Paki Chan, I’m Paki Robinson, I’m Pak Nicholson;” “I think, what if I was fairer skinned? Had less of the melanin?/Would I get more work or would I not be worth anything?”
The eponymous second track here is even more of an RTJ-esque banger. Seriously, I think Redinho is taking some serious inspiration from El-P’s production style here, as well as some of the faster-paced stuff you hear on UK grime tracks, which of course makes sense considering half the duo is from the UK. If anything, I wish this song was more developed, because while it is fun, it — like most of the songs on this EP — isn’t even 2.5 minutes long. I do still think the beat here is fire, though, as well as Riz’s rappity-rap flow. I like that the two MCs bear differing styles, because they’re so in sync mentally and spiritually that despite their vast differences between them (Heems being an American of Indian descent and Riz being a Brit of Pakistani descent) they can still come through with serious heat.
The song “Thas My Girl” has a beat that reminds me of Bollywood dance scenes, but with a heavier bass. It features Heems and Riz trading short verses about a beautiful woman, eventually realizing they’re rapping about the same woman. Heems has said this song is inspired by Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” but it reminds me more of Flight of the Conchords’ “We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady,” except with an Eastern hip-hop inflection to it. As usual, they’re both dropping references to people and things which I have no conception of, which is something I have come to love about Swet Shop Boys. They both care deeply about the issues, the likes, the dislikes, and the cultures to be found in vast nations like India and Pakistan. While I am not a person of color, I can imagine one whose family comes from one of these nations or a nearby nation would find a lot to love about what Swet Shop Boys does on this EP, as well as what they tend to do in general.
The next track, “Zombie,” also has a pretty excellent beat with it. I enjoyed Redinho’s production a lot on the last SSB full-length, and he somehow sounds even better and more progressive on this EP here. This track also has a darker, angrier tone, with both MCs commenting on current events, although to call them current events is not to ignore the fact that racism and Islamophobia have pervaded for centuries. Riz drops lines like “But yo, did you see the results of the vote, though?/So where we gonna go bro?” and Heems drops the line “I will bend you/Like the guts in the back woods/Like he was wearing a white hood/I’m always wearing a black hood.” Swet Shop Boys’ music is revolutionary by nature, even if not every track sounds like it, and I like that they’re unafraid of taking on a sharply political tone, especially Riz, who is arguably more famous with mainstream crowds and might have more to lose with his career. Heems has been making political statements in his music for years, so it’s not so much a surprise from him. The real surprise, I guess, is that it comes together so fluently, even if these songs so far are a bit too short and somewhat unfinished-sounding for their own good.
The penultimate track, “Birding” is a tribute to birdwatching, which was apparently a pastime during the Mughal empire. Heems mentions a bunch of birds in his verse, like brown pelicans, ring-necked pheasants, and boat-tailed grackles, which is a hilariously thorough way to go about writing a verse about birdwatching. I wish Riz had a verse on this track, especially since he name-dropped the Mughal empire in the previous song, but as a solo Heems cut it still works. Hell, it even uses samples of birds, proving that a song really can be written about nearly anything. “Birding” ends up being one of my favorites on this entire EP.
My favorite song, though, is the final track, “Need Moor,” which has the strongest melodies of any track so far. It’s incredibly catchy and funny, displaying the hunger for wealth, fame, and artistic freedom that Heems and Riz long for. And, of course Heems drops some excellent lines in this track, like “Ey yo, I’m bumpin’ Suicide in my whip/Trying not to commit suicide in my whip” and “Shouts out the OG that’s Tony Kanal and No Doubt.” It’s a fun ending to this all-too-short release from SSB, but there is a lot to enjoy about it.
This is certainly not a bad EP, and I wouldn’t say any of the songs on here are bad. There are just some that don’t fare quite as well as others in comparison, and the fact that the songs here are so short does kind of work to the detriment of the EP as a whole. Overall, though, I like it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on my list of the 2017’s best EPs, although it definitely will not be topping the list.
SCORE — 7.25 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Anthem, Zombie, Birding, Need Moor