Himanshu Suri is not a joke rapper. Known by most of the Internet as Heems, the Queens native’s verses bounce between personal, metaphysical, and political with sly wit that gently tease audiences who can’t keep up. Formerly one half of the rap group Das Racist, Heems has mapped out a solo career for himself that manages to preserve his Queens point of view while maintaining the intellectual and political invective that created a generation of devoted Das Racist fans.
During his Das Racist years, Heems and his bandmates made a name for themselves by working with humor to write about complex ideas. On “Hahahaha jk?” they even rapped: “We’re not joking. Just joking. We are joking. Just joking. We’re not joking.” But on his own, his statements are more precise.
Last week, Heems released the magnificently titled solo album Eat Pray Thug, out via Megaforce Records and his own Greedhead Music. It’s the first bit of music from Suri since his 2012 run of mixtapes, Nehru Jackets and Wild Water Kingdom.
I think even a lot of the Das Racist stuff, even though it wasn’t always serious, still had a kind of darkness to it, filtered through humor.”
But the the rapper has certainly been busy for the past three years. A restless creator, Heems divided his time between his family home in Queens and various creative communities: playing with a twenty-member jazz orchestra; remixing a Vampire Weekend song with Despot and Danny Brown; lecturing at universities; touring with 73-year-old composer Charanjit Singh; working on a side project with Riz MC, Swet Shop Boys.
His solo creative pursuits also included a tour that brought him from Nepal to the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, China, India—performing small shows and collaborating with a wide array of artists. “I spent a couple weeks in Goa and was playing shows with friends in super small settings,” Heems told me over the phone. “One of them was on the side of a road with just small computer monitors and people kept showing up and it went from this 4-5 people jamming to like 30 people on the side of a road.”
Free from the distractions of New York, Heems found inspiration in the people around him.
“I was also there for a literature festival so I was hanging out with all of these Pakistani poets,” he tells me. “And the friend I was staying with was a poet and an artist who works with language, so I was just in this really good place creatively with friends, thinking about sound and language. Songs just kind of came out of me for the last few days I was on that trip.”
Despite the seemingly endless string of projects, though, a lot of the past year, Heems says, has been spent simply waiting. “I’ve pretty much spent the last year trying to clear records,” he told me.
It seems, though, that the album was worth the wait: Eat Pray Thug, recorded in Bandra, Mumbai at Purple Haze Studios, sounds like Heems’ most fully realized vision. There are moments of emotional rawness mixed with political clarity and earnestness. It’s a record that’s lyrics ultimately really speak for themselves.
““We rushed to buy flags for our doors, bright American flags that read I am not Osama,” he raps on “Patriot Act”, while standout track “Flag Shopping” paints a vivid picture of life for South Asian Americans in the wake of 9/11. On “Home,” Heems delivers a surprising R&B hook assisted by Dev Hynes distinct but somehow never redundant vocal adlibs. All of the songs on the record feel deeply personal (“Sometimes I got game / sometimes I’m mad shy,” he sings on “Sometimes”) which makes knowing that they’re almost two years old a bit surprising.
“Artists will tell you an album is a snapshot of where they were at a particular time in their life,” Heems says. “Especially with rap music you’re talking about three verses with 16 bars, thats a lot of words. We put even more of ourselves in each record.”
For Heems, thats a particularly delicate balance. Many of Himanshu Suri’s devoted fans know the past few years have been particularly difficult ones for the rapper. Documented on his Tumblr, Nehru Jackets, Heems has dealt with depression very openly. “The record was kind of theraputic for me,” he says. “I was dealing with alot of mental health stuff and it was definitely helpful making this record. I think even a lot of the Das Racist stuff, even though it wasn’t always serious, still had a kind of darkness to it, filtered through humor.”
To celebrate the release of the album, Heems curated an exhibit at New York’s Aicon Gallery by the same name. Speaks to the simultaneously political and personal nature of the record, the art show “represents a wide array of mediums and artistic backgrounds – straight/queer, Hindu/Muslim, male/female, established/newcomer, Asia/Diaspora,” reads the press release. “Though all these artists may trace their roots to India or Pakistan, they live and work in varied mediums around the world and not all the work revolves around issues of identity, for example, the abstract geometric studies of Nihalani and Suleman’s black comedic commentary on current events in Pakistan. Taken as a whole, the exhibition examines the richly varied contemporary artistic voices resonating from out of South Asia and its Diaspora.”
It’s an expansive project to take on, but more than anything proves that Heems isn’t only back; he’s carving out a whole new creative lane for himself.