Album review: "Relax"
Consciously or not, N.Y.C.-by-way-of-Wesleyan outfit Das Racist has modeled itself after the Beastie Boys, another alt-minded hip-hop group that started out with a joke rap hit (“Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” in Das Racist’s case) and went on to make smart, dense, socially conscious albums that simultaneously celebrated and skewered the genre’s most closely held conventions.
“Relax” is Das Racist’s first album after two well-received mix tapes. In Beasties terms, it’s their “Paul’s Boutique,” though the Beasties never had to try this hard to make a point. “Relax” has a lot to say about race, about hip-hop, about America in 2011, though it’s too bogged down by its own cleverness, its outsize sense of self-satisfaction, to say much of anything.
Its greatest track, the cranked-up, unfocused “Michael Jackson,” isn’t about the late pop star. The singsongy “Middle of the Cake” (with a cameo from Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder) is one of the few tracks with a discernible interest in beats. It’s twisty and brilliant, it encapsulates everything Das Racist can do when the group really wants to and it holds the couplet of the year (“RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry / Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees”), whatever it means.
“Girl” is a queasy love song that seems to have wandered over from an alternate universe ’N Sync album, complete with cheesy lyrics (“To me I’m just me / Whatever that may be / And I know that you’re just you / So let’s do what we came to do”), “Infinite Jest” puns and a vaguely date-rapey vibe. Other than that, it’s kind of sweet.
--Allison Stewart, Sept. 13, 2011
Q: Are we not meme?
A: We are Das Racist!
The blog-championed joke-rap group (does it even need to be mentioned they live in Brooklyn?) was a bit out of its element at a sold-out Rock & Roll Hotel on Friday night. The duo of Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez -- joined in concert by hype dude Ashok Kondablu -- has a natural habitat of the Internet. That’s where its 2008 song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” became a surprise hit, and that’s where the band releases all of its music for free. And it’s also via Internet that Das Racist issues videos that double as interactive video games, guest-blogs about television for music site Stereogum and has the occasional cartoon contest with New Yorker illustrators.
Which isn’t to say Das Racist is simply desperate to be an eternal trending topic; the material has merit. Songs from well-received mixtapes “Shut Up, Dude” and “Sit Down, Man” are at once both low-brow and high-intellect, a parade of punchlines that usually hit the mark. It’s social commentary masked as stoner comedy, peppered with references that will have listeners repeatedly checking Wikipedia. Imagine the Lonely Island if Andy Samberg’s rapping partner was Dennis Miller, only they were Hispanic and Indian.
On record -- well, MP3 -- it’s a gas. In concert it didn’t serve as much of a purpose. The trio was clearly enjoying itself, whether that meant unfurling the venue’s on-stage movie screen, hawking t-shirts mid-show or simply posing and leaping. But the songs hinge on precise and dynamic wordplay and as is the case with many rap shows, it failed to completely translate in a live setting thanks to group-shouted raps and iffy sound.
If you can only make out “W.E.B. DuBois” and not the “We be da boys” line that comes next on “Hugo Chavez,” what’s the point? On songs such as “Who’s That? Brooown!” and “Shorty Said” it was mostly the proper names that could be plucked out -- Carlos Mencia, Jake Gyllenhaal, Larry Bird, Mel Gibson. Das Racist is better than simply the “Family Guy” of rap -- references with no context -- but seeing them in concert won’t easily prove that point.
When it was all over after barely 45 minutes the band’s DJ blasted Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” as Vazquez and Suri sang along for a few moments before walking off the stage as the song continued to blare through the speakers. It was a fitting end to the show -- Das Racist’s own version of a Rick-Roll.
--David Malitz, Jan. 17, 2011