Album Of The Week: Heems & Lapgan LAFANDAR

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Album Of The Week: Heems & Lapgan LAFANDAR


Throughout all of this past year’s discourse over the commercial decline of rap music, I wondered if the problem was less that listeners had lost interest in the genre than the artists themselves had stopped having fun?

The most prominent headline was Lil Yachty, who, after making the most of a seeming study abroad in the Michigan rap scene, pivoted to Urban Outfitters-core alt-pop alongside disparaging comments about hip-hop’s stagnancy. Doja Cat released one of the filthiest, frothiest, and unapologetically feminine rap albums in the mainstream, and then disavowed those songs in lieu of misanthropic shock-pop. Kendrick got deep into therapy bars and philosophizing about cancel culture, Nicki is stuck in a craven chart-gaming cycle of diminishing returns, and let’s not even get started on Kanye. Even when there’s been some levity in the music, rappers have become less and less interested in actually rapping; Playboi Carti and Travis Scott barely seem to write bars, with the aesthetics of rage taking precedence over the rhythm and poetry that gave the genre its name. Rap has become fragmented into so many factions, tied up in too many corporate interests, and hit with a recent parade of pointless, depressing feuds, that the sense of play that led it to ascend over the last 50 years into the most popular genre in the world feels absent.

Where commercial rap has suffered in this self-serious streak, underground hip-hop continues to thrive on unpredictable personalities, hyper-regionalism, and a sense of humor. And now, not a moment too soon, we have the return of one of the savviest MCs of the early meme era. Himanshu Suri, the Queens-born Punjabi rapper, made his name with the striking quips and meta-satirical-savagery of Das Racist, an internet-native group that took rap seriously without taking it too seriously. Their music attracted critical acclaim and online influence not only because of their portentous satire – “Fake Patois” and “Hahahaha Jk” feel like they could have as easily been written about today’s discourse than that of 15 years ago – but because their music felt spontaneous and limitless. Anything could happen within a Das Racist song, from SAT-vocab adlibs to anime end credit samples to Heems shouting “Rock on the track like we got Roc on the track” on a track called “Roc Marciano Joint” before Roc’s voice actually appears.

Heems disappeared for a minute there, receding behind the scenes of the music industry with positions at Spotify and Audiomack. Since his last outing on the mic alongside battle-rapper-turned-actor Rizwan Ahmed as the Swet Shop Boys, little has turned over in music to replace his instinctually incisive and smirking penmanship. Their transatlantic, transgressive statement of intent Cashmere opened up an unapologetic authenticity that Heems’ music had never fully committed, intertwining diasporic samples with instrumentation from across his home continent. The result was an album grounded from the beats to the bars in a coherent sense of identity, one that felt like a revelation in triangulating a rap scene that had grown increasingly monotonous between dueling conscious and commercial extremes.

Seven years later, Heems still seems inspired by the Swet Shop Boys ethos, drawing further from that well with his new project LAFANDAR. The album is a full-length team up with the rising Chicago-based crate digger Gaurav Napgal, who goes by the last-name-backwards moniker Lapgan. Their partnership blossomed so organically after being introduced last year that the sudden emergence of a joint full-length led Heems to slot LAFANDAR ahead of his originally planned comeback record (still slated for later in the year). It’s all part of a seeming Heems renaissance in 2024. The two albums arrive alongside his new brand Veena, named after his mother and diversified in portfolio from selling coconut oil to publishing a digital magazine to rereleasing the old Das Racist mixtapes on vinyl.

A Das Racist disciple before he began making his own music, Lapgan internalized in his production style a similar affinity for collapsing time and space through the unexpected collision of reference points. He selects samples from across the archives of South Asian music, then channels them through the filter of present-day rap aesthetics. Across three beat tapes, the most recent being the mischievous tapestry History – which was Veena’s inaugural release – he has refined a signature you might describe as “lo-fi hymn-hop you can meditate/breakdance to.” And even with that caliber of catalog, an instrumental of LAFANDAR would probably be his best solo album yet.

Lapgan treats the opportunity to helm his idol’s first solo LP in almost a decade with the requisite ambition. These songs draw from across continents, mining forgotten Tollywood film scores, Persian ragas, and English new wave. Although his source library differs from the jazz and soul records his role models primarily pulled from, he still crafts beats that sound like prime Knxwldge (“Yo Momma”), the Alchemist (“Going For 6”), and Kanye (“Obi Toppin”). His fusions have always been ear-catching and clever, but on LAFANDAR every composition holds stronger gravity; he comes across like the Delhi Dilla, chopping harmonious friction out of carefully curated artifacts as a corrective for the cheap nostalgia-baiting that has taken up much of sample-based rap these days.

One of the accomplishments of Cashmere was balancing Heems’ erratic attention span with the more narratively-minded verses of Riz MC. Where Heems’ solo albums could suffer from his worst tendencies going uncurbed, Lapgan’s partnership helps reign him in, resulting in his most focused performance on the mic since his Das Racist days. Over trembling setar on “Baba Ganoush,” he locks in with internal rhyme schemes and percussive syllable patterns. He switches his Vs and Ws on “Kala Tika” to delightfully delirious effect. He bursts through the delicate shimmer of “Yellow Chakra” with a chest-thumping self-mythology, rapping earnest but seething commandments like “I tell my people how the census affects us/ Life is precious, the government neglects us.”

Much like with Cashmere, there are lyrics laced along the album that serve as Easter eggs for listeners in the know. They range from the linguistic (“Lassi tanda / make your ass nanga”) to the religious (“I pull up with blades, big ones, like the Sikhs had”) to the lifestyle-oriented (“Eat the rabbit cooked for 24 hours at Dhamaka”). The first time I heard him boast “I eat a whole onion raw,” I immediately knew I’d be yelling the line daily. When he puts up prayer hands and raps “At the gurdwara, Waheguru please protect us” and then follows it up with “a bacon egg and cheese for my breakfast,” the totality of my personal experience captured between the non-sequiturs brought a tear to my eye.

And yet what most sets this outing apart in Heems’ discography is the community he has pulled together to support the record. Apart from his rapping, he might be most proud of his performance as an A&R. Everyone who graces LAFANDAR – a diverse roster that includes Open Mike Eagle, Blu, Saul Williams, Your Old Droog, Fatboi Shariff, and Sid Sriram, among many others – seems to be having so much fun, opening up their flows to Lapgan’s nomadic modalities and firing off punchlines and wordplay that seem primarily directed to impress one another (everyone’s a winner, but only Abhi The Nomad rhymes “Haters call me NAV it’s all laughter when they typing some/ But when we meet in person, its like that one Paul Simon song”).

You can tell that the extent to which his peers and predecessors came through in their contributions pushed Heems to rise to the occasion. There’s palpable hunger in his belly as he spits alongside personal icons like Kool Keith and Sir Michael Rocks, each of whom drop nimble and endlessly replayable verses (I love the way Rocks hisses “I shot him in the leg so I wouldn’t get the Porsche wet”). The energy of the ensemble forms a mosaic for the many joys rap still provides outside of the Rap Caviar class currently running its popular conception. Much like he did with Das Racist, Heems isn’t sending up the genre with LAFANDAR, he’s bringing it back down to earth.

“Lafandar” is a derisive term, a way of calling someone good for nothing or a vagabond. His misunderstood reputation as a joke rapper belied the care he put into his work, leaving Heems long feeling out of place in the field. But until recently, most Asian artists had to perform their careers ironically as a means of breaking into the mainstream, otherizing themselves to draw attention in lieu of access to traditional paths of acceptance. The culture has moved forward a long way since “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell,” the Trojan horse that snuck Heems into late-aughts blog radar (and has netted him some well deserved cash as its transitioned from meme to commercials). Fifteen years after his debut, Heems treats LAFANDAR as a long-awaited victory lap for having outrun the labels of his early career. He reclaims the title’s pejorative as validation of his wayward path. His perennial nonchalance remains the same, but he has never sounded more at home within an album.

LAFANDAR is the ideal of what Heems has strived for since 2008, a blend of his two worlds that is lived-in but not lonely. You can feel his family tree reaching out of the soil when he shouts “Fuck a Sony, Universal, and a Warner,” drawing associations with inherited commitments to independence. The frequency of place-setting name drops shows his reverence for the many streets he claims. The marriage of culture-spanning sonics and an immigrant-informed point-of-view makes LAFANDAR not only a landmark in the growing wave of Indo-Western hip-hop, but also a quintessential New York rap album, from the local shoutouts to the atmospheric loops to the defiant attitude. This is a celebration for the whole block – the heads, haters, cousins, and ancestors. Whether it brings you back to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx or to the polyphonic chaos of Chandni Chowk, it achieves what hip-hop does better than any genre of music. It invites everyone to the party.

LAFANDAR is out 2/16 on Veena Sounds/Mass Appeal India.

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