Sunday 30 October 2016

Review of 'Cashmere' by Swet Shop Boys

‘Zayn Malik got more than 80 virgins on him/ There’s more than one direction to get to paradise’

That’s just one of many jaw-droppingly ace bars on this new album from MC Riz and Heems (aka Swet Shop Boys). Joining forces from across the pond, the British Four Lions actor and US Das Racist member make for a formidable duo, taking hip hop’s use as a vehicle for black struggles, and excitingly applying it to the struggles of their own ethnic minority – brown people.

From racial profiling to terrorism, every social issue and negative stereotype that their ethnicity faces is tackled head on within the terse half-hour running time of this album. All of it is done with a witty sense of humour and an ear for a banging beat, preventing their music from simply being preachy social activism, but rather riveting entertainment with the added bonus of a radical message.

Like Run the Jewels, the pair’s winning formula is the result of their two polar opposite styles - the creatively cryptic vs the boldly blunt. MC Riz’s bars rely on the former, self-describing himself on ‘Phone tap’ as spitting ‘paan like it’s Panama Papers’. His bars are a maze of cultural references, the clever humour of which becomes apparent after researching them. Contrastingly, Heems’ bars often require no unpicking, equally comical but instead through their sheer simplicity and ridiculous straightforwardness: ‘I am a cool guy, I’m good at rapping/ get on the beat, murk it and then ask what happened’.  

Together, they balance one another out, Riz adding depth, whilst Heems contributes clarity. In fact, the only tracks that suffer are the ones where one part of the duo is missing. Some much needed wit from Riz would have made up for the horrible autotuned ‘you already know brother’ hook and  choice to rhyme ‘Bombay’ with ‘Bombay’ on Heems’ solo effort ‘Swish Swish’. Meanwhile, some loopy inflections from Heems might have lightened the sombre mood and made up for the boring chorus on Riz’s lone venture ‘Half Moghul, Half Mowgli’.

Thankfully the large bulk of the album sees them sticking together and employing their combined talents, making for some solid songs. And the instrumentals are all creative and hard-hitting, sampling Banghra and Bollywood scores in keeping with the record's sense of racial identity resulting in the rattling ‘Aaja’ and groovy ‘Tiger Hologram’. Western hip hop and Asian music have been mixed before, but never so inventively.

However, by far the most revolutionary part of the Swet Shop Boys music is their ability to unite brown people of all religions and nationalities under one roof lyrically. From Muslims (‘no pork on my fork, no swine while I dine’) to Sihks (‘my shoes off at the Gurdwara’), from Turks (stopping refugees is just silly blud/ well you know about Aeneas in the Iliad) to Hindi Indians (‘Trying to give Shivani a stack for Rahki’), from British Asians (‘what you mean Her Majesty’s London? Where you think all her majesty come from’) to American Asians (‘the NYPD ain’t nothing but Nazis’), all brown people are accounted for in the duo’s quest for equality.