Photo by Jamie Langley
It started off like any other 4/20 rap show: goodie bags with rolling papers and stickers, a crowd that looked and smelled like they’d been celebrating the holiday devoutly, and a bill that combined rangy newcomers like Topaz Jones and more veteran acts like Weekend Money. But as soon as Himanshu Suri took the stage last night at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg he steered the event sharply off the beaten path and into more interesting, if much rockier, terrain, both musically and spiritually. What seemed at first like a simple celebration of a stoner holiday soon became something much more frustrating—and fascinating.
When Blood Orange mastermind Dev Hynes was spotted in the venue’s bar before Heems’ set everyone assumed that he was there to sit in on “Home,” the very tender, very Blood Orange-y ballad that pops up on Suri’s new album Eat Pray Thug in the middle of a collection of songs largely about struggling to come to terms with American racism, post-9/11 PTSD, and plain old self-doubt. It turned out that Hynes was actually sitting in as Suri’s DJ for the night, and if Heems was the one steering the performance into experimental territory, Hynes was at least working the gas pedal, dismantling and reconstructing songs on the fly and reshaping them into the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a functional hybrid of hip-hop and No Wave.
Suri, who seems to thrive on courting chaos, kept the audience on their toes. When he introduced the Eat Pray Thug track “Al Q8A” some girl in the crowd responded by yelling, with startling enthusiasm, “Al Qaeda!” “Some girl just yelled ‘Al Qaeda,’ he laughed into the mic, which created a wave of uneasy laughter that spread across the crowded room and then cut itself uncomfortably short. Then he slipped into the stone cold rapper persona that he occupied for the parts of the set where he wasn’t channelling slathered-in-peanut-butter-era Iggy Pop. The song started out as convincing proof that Heems is one of the strongest fundamentals-game MCs on the New York scene right now, and by the end it had devolved into him banging the mic on the tom of the house back line kit while Hynes played around with a trap drum loop.
Suri’s been an unpredictable artist and performer since Das Racist, but his shows recently have been particularly erratic, and it seems to have far less to do with his technical proficiency as it does the material on his set list. Eat Pray Thug is an album marked by emotional trauma—isolation, addiction, and the internalized effects of institutionalized racism are some of its main themes—and he seems to re-experience it every time he performs the songs he seems to relive it. The fact that there are undoubtedly contingents in the audience of each show who came out expecting him to play funny shit not only compounds the trauma, but also subtly underlines one of the album’s main themes, namely that white people don’t want to hear about how a brown person thinks or feels about 9/11 and its continually reverberating aftershocks. He doesn’t so much perform the songs as he does impale himself on them. No wonder he seems so fucked up.
The performance—and Heems himself—oscillated between clarity and confusion, like a film projector that won’t stay in focus. The one point where he seemed at ease was when Hynes stepped out from behind the decks to sing “Home” with a stick of incense burning in his hand. It was a gorgeous, weightless moment that briefly brought calm to the set. Within a couple minutes Suri was sloshing a cocktail around as he paced the stage to the Billy Joel-sampling beat to Das Racist’s “You Oughta Know” with commercials for Indian skin lightening cream projected behind him, pixel-moshed into abstract smears of skin tone.
The set ended with a lurching version of Eat Pray Thug’s heaviest track, “Flag Shopping,” that brought the track’s dirginess to the forefront and probably had more in common sonically with the darkest early Swans recordings than the rest of the acts on the bill. The song built into a menacing crescendo, then smash-cut straight into the perversely perky sound of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.” Was it a reward for making it through the set? Or some kind of punishment? I turned around to look at what was left of the crowd and by the profoundly baffled expressions on their faces I could tell they didn’t have a clue either.
Miles Raymer is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.