The past few months have seen a number of high-profile rap album releases that combine the personal and the political, including Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterly, J. Cole’s Forest Hills Drive, and the second Run the Jewels album. Himanshu “Heems” Suri’s Eat Pray Thug hasn’t drawn the same kind of attention, despite the fact that it’s as deep and raw as any of these works. There are a number of reasons why this might be, but the most likely one is “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”
Released in late 2008 by Suri’s former group Das Racist (alongside partner Victor “Kool A.D.” Vazquez), “Combination” was one of the first songs not by an outsider artist (ie. Tay Zonday) to go viral online, paving the way for meme-based hits like Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” Its success was double edged, to say the least: Despite the fact that the rest of their material mixed edgy comedy with edgier political observations, not to mention how the track’s delirious absurdity was too cleverly constructed to have been made by dummies, the pair were widely written off as merely joke rappers.
Eat Pray Thug is a much different animal from Das Racist’s albums, or even Suri’s previous two solo LPs. It’s less about laughing through the pain and more about facing it head-on. “It wasn’t a conscious effort to be less funny,” he tells EW. “In a lot of ways I knew it would probably alienate people that I wasn’t as funny. But I’m just trying to be honest, and I’m probably not as funny as I was four years ago. I think a lot of that playfulness came from…in a lot of ways I think I’ve grown up.”
He hasn’t completely stopped with the jokes, though. “Humor is a part of rap. Kanye West is one of the funniest guys out. Anyone who knows hip-hop knows coping mechanisms, and humor is one of them.”
The 10 songs cover a range of subjects, from depression and self-doubt to Suri’s identity as a born-and-raised New York City rap fan. (LOL-worthy sample lyric: “I’m so New York I still don’t bump Tupac.”) But its most prevalent theme is 9/11. As a student at a school near the World Trade Center, Suri saw the catastrophe happen firsthand—and the fallout that people of South Asian and Arab descent experienced in its wake. “[T]his thing was obviously a traumatic event for any 15 or 18 year old to witness at close proximity,” he says, “and then on top of that the way people perceiving the brown body has changed in kind of the Western lexicon.”
Suri approaches what he describes as “a kind of double victimization” with some of the sarcasm that you’d expect from an MC who’s built a career on being a smartass. Take “Flag Shopping,” where he describes families in his South Asian-heavy Queens neighborhood plastering their homes in American flags—a proactive attempt to avoid accusations of being terrorist sympathizers. He raps with the sardonic world-weariness of someone who knows exactly how effective that strategy will be against committed xenophobes.
But on “Patriot Act,” Suri doesn’t even bother trying to hide his pain behind punch lines. He abandons his rapper’s flow to talk with a startling directness about seeing his neighbors—including the father of a girl he went to “expensive white people school” with—deported for flimsy reasons. He also confesses, in heartbreakingly intimate terms, his fear that his own father will be whisked away as well one day. It’s a moment that will hit you right in the solar plexus, leaving you breathless and aching. And it’s only one of the powerful blows that Eat Pray Thug packs.