Swet Shop Boys’ Debut Album is Just What We Need

How do we discuss and analyze one of the year’s most anticipated albums? Old school chat room style, using Slack’s instant messaging service. The subject: the Swet Shop Boys’ phenomenal first album, Cashmere. 

Swet Shop Boys Cashmere Album Review Riz Ahmed Heems

In a post-Brexit world where Trump reigns and bigotry, racism and Islamophobia grow, we need an album like Cashmere, with its insightful lyrics, social commentary, and raw humour. London’s Riz MC (actor, MC and activist Riz Ahmed) and Queens-based Heems (rap artist and lecturer Himanshi Suri) are the Swet Shop Boys, a cross-Atlantic Hip Hop duo deeply influenced by their working class immigrant roots and life experiences. Joining them on this album is British producer Redinho.

Swet Shop Boys Himanshu Suri Riz Ahmed

Redinho, Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri. Image: Pitchfork.

Herewith, our roundtable conversation where we compare notes on our favourite songs and review the Swet Shop Boys’ debut album, Cashmere.

—– #swetshboysbroundtable —–
nimnim: Nimritta Parmar
manjot: Manjot Bains
rumnique1: Rumnique Nannar

manjot [9:07 PM]
What does “broundtable” mean? Like “Brown round table”?

rumnique1 [9:08 PM]
Haha! I misspelt it, I was trying to fit swetshopboys and altered it midway :stuck_out_tongue:

manjot [9:10]
Swet Shop Boys….

[9:12 PM]
I have an ever bigger crush on Riz. Like huge. Can’t find emoji for that.

nimnim [9:12 PM]
hahahaa

manjot [9:12 PM]
He is ridiculously talented. Blows my mind.

nimnim [9:13 PM]
It feels like he is… less composed this time – but in a good way. Almost like he is comfortable saying what he has to say, the way he wants to say it.

rumnique1 [9:14 PM]
I think so too, and he gets to have fun on this album due to working with Heems.

nimnim [9:14 PM]
They definitely know how to play off of one another.

manjot [9:14 PM]
I liked the contrast of tone. They can talk about Terminal 5 at Heathrow and racial profiling on “T5,” and then sing about “I gotta take a shit, I hope the toilet isn’t dirty” in “Tiger Hologram.”

rumnique1 [9:15 PM]
Definitely, I liked that Heems broke the tension on a lot of these tracks. I laughed so hard at that line.

manjot [9:16 PM]
I know!

rumnique1 [9:16 PM]
Whereas Riz is hyper-literate, Heems can be a jester throughout.

nimnim [9:16 PM]
Heems knows his role and he plays it well. Also, on that topic, in my notes, I wrote – hybridity/duality – there are a lot of puns, double meanings of words, two places and two things. There’s the Kashmir/Cashmere, “Half Moghul Half Mowgli”, or lyrics like “Shoes off at the gurdawara/shoes off at the airport.” It’s almost like the two of them are a half of a whole.

rumnique1 [9:18 PM]
Yeah, and they both talk about being from different sides of the border. Heems is Pakistani side, while Riz shouts out to his Ambala family.

manjot [9:19 PM]
I had to listen to that twice. I thought I was mixing things up when I heard him say Ambala fam.

rumnique1 [9:20 PM]
Yeah, it’s going all the way back to Partition, which shows how much border crossing is a part of South Asian history even as those two are second generation in Queens and London.

nimnim [9:20 PM]
Yes and how it affects the diaspora as well.

manjot [9:21 PM]
I was surprised by how much of the lyrics I could relate to.

rumnique1 [9:22 PM]
Yeah, it’s so rare, and much like Horsepowar‘s music, it’s identifiable and grounded.

nimnim [9:22 PM]
It strengthens the community based on common experiences and feelings.

rumnique1 [9:23 PM]
Like even though they’re talking about hybridity, borders, post-9/11 they keep it rooted into their specifics, which echoes so many other experiences of ours too.

nimnim [9:23 PM]
Exactly, it doesn’t feel redundant at all. It doesn’t feel like we’ve heard this before, it still feels new. Like you said Rumnique, they’re opening up about more specifics and not just keeping it about vague racism.

rumnique1 [9:25 PM]
I think I appreciate that they’re talking about hybridity, because it’s still a thing that never goes away for some of us, especially on “Half moghul half mowgli” – dualisms and dichotomies are throughout this album

manjot [9:26 PM]
Which song stood out the most for you, or did you connect the most with, or just love the most?

nimnim [9:26 PM]
“Zayn Malik.”

rumnique1 [9:26 PM]
Same!

manjot [9:26 PM]
Me too!

nimnim [9:26 PM]
It gives me a buzz!

rumnique1 [9:26 PM]
Why Zayn do you think?

manjot [9:27]
Hmmm. Maybe what he represents to the mainstream?

nimnim [9:27 PM]
I think Zayn because he broke through to the main stream.

manjot [9:27 PM]
And he was attacked for being brown and Muslim too. It’s as if there are pointing to you can “make it” but not quite.

nimnim [9:27 PM]
He’s also pretty open about his brownness. It’s a big part of him, and he shows it.

rumnique1 [9:28 PM]
Yeah and he’s also faced so much vitriol while in the band. I love Riz’s line “Look Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him/There’s more than one direction to get to paradise.”

manjot [9:29 PM]
What do you think of the way the song ends? Each song has an interesting conclusion.

rumnique1 [9:29 PM]
Yeah they use good samples.

manjot [9:29 PM]
Each unexpected too.

rumnique1 [9:30 PM]
I liked how Aaja ended with Qandeel Baloch, which is very ghostly on a song that’s romantic.

manjot [9:30 PM]
What do you two think of Tiger Hologram?

nimnim [9:30 PM]
I don’t love it. It’s joke rap, which I’m not the biggest fan of. I will say that it has the lyrics that I remember the most.

manjot [9:32 PM]
I like the music, I could dance to this song.

rumnique1 [9:32 PM]
Yeah it’s more straightforward.

nimnim [9:32 PM]
Yeah it sounds good.

manjot [9:32 PM]
But I wasn’t keen on the 2 dimensional-ness of woman.

rumnique1 [9:32 PM]
I like Redinho’s production.

manjot [9:33 PM]
The production is phenomenal on this album. I think their first two tracks, Benny Lava… the production was good, but not as crisp as this album.

rumnique1 [9:35 PM]
Yeah the last EP was by Ryan Hemsworth who’s quite big, but I think with Redinho they’ve found someone who appreciates their styles and love of sampling. The songs he chose for the Dazed mix were amazing.

nimnim [9:38 PM]
What did we think of Heems on the album?

rumnique1 [9:39 PM]
Initially I thought he was being too jokey. But that’s just his style. He spent a whole track on Eat Pray Thug making me laugh about “clarity clarady.”

nimnim [9:40 PM]
oh my goodness that part killed me in his last album!

rumnique1 [9:40 PM]
Yeah I like that they both get solos on this album too. He gets “Swish Swish” and Riz get “Half Moghul Half Mowgli” and others too.

manjot [9:41 PM]
Riz’s solos have more of an impact for me.

nimnim [9:41 PM]
I agree.

rumnique1 [9:41 PM]
What are your faves?

manjot [9:42 PM]
“Shottin.”

nimnim [9:43 PM]
“Shottin” is my favourite Riz one too!

manjot [9:46 PM]
I think Shottin is done in the style of gangsta rap…it made me think of 90s rap, like a Warren G, west coast vibe.

rumnique1 [9:46 PM]
Yeah it’s got storytelling in it, which i love about Riz’s work

nimnim [9:42 PM]
I also love Heems on “No Fly List.”

rumnique1 [9:43 PM]
Haha I’m the opposite – I love “Half Moghul Half Mowgli.”

manjot [9:43 PM]
It’s a strong track. Like they say so much, and it just hits you like, shit.

nimnim [9:44 PM]
i like the content of “Half Moghul Half Mowgli.” It feels heavy to me

rumnique1 [9:45 PM]
Heavy?

nimnim [9:45 PM]
To me, it feels less about experience and more about self-reflection or self-awareness

manjot [9:47 PM]
I think Half Moghul Half Mowgli is self-reflexive. The album is interesting like that – there’s humour, some real depth, some sadness, but all packaged in a way that’s good to listen to, even dance to, while lip syncing about racial profiling and what not.

nimnim [9:48 PM]
It is very well rounded. This album reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s blunt, unapologetic, and still fun

rumnique1 [9:49 PM]
Their first EP set up their style as Riz and Heems brought up that post 9/11 trauma even back then. Cashmere solidifies why they’re so necessary in the music landscape. With Kendrick, that album is also a further refinement of the themes he touched on previously.

nimnim [9:51 PM]
Yeah, Kendrick is digging deeper, and allows himself to be SO vulnerable. Sharing experiences the way they do in itself is a very vulnerable act.

rumnique1 [9:54 PM]
Definitely, and they come together on issues where brown men are painted all the same even if they come from Queens or London

manjot [9:55 PM]
I’m sometimes curious about how families react to artists like Heems and Riz, and the work they do. One of the samples on “Phone Tap” is from Riz’s parents. And in No Fly List Heems talks about should have been an engineer, pharmacist, surgeon, etc. He could be calling out stereotypes, but I wonder how his parents feel about the work he does, which has such an impact. Horsepowar talked about that challenge in her interview with the two of you on the podcast.

nimnim [9:57 PM]
I also wonder how it’s different for them because they’re men. If Horsepowar was 30+, single and rapping, I’m sure she would be less well-received

rumnique1 [9:58 PM]
I think they feel that weight of expectation on them as men, because the patriarchy runs deep.

nimnim
You can tell they struggle with it. I don’t want to say they don’t feel comfortable with their masculinity, because that’s not right, but I think they challenge hyper-masculinity in their own ways, maybe without even realizing it. Like they’re not trying to be sexy

rumnique1 [10:02 PM]
Definitely, I love seeing that there’s space now for them, MIA, Horsepowar, Anik Khan, Fateh, Leo Kalyan, and other South Asian musicians to do their own thing.

nimnim [10:05 PM]
yes!

rumnique1 [10:05 PM]
With Fateh, he’s even more niche by rapping in Punjabi and being Canadian,

nimnim [10:06 PM]
It’s a nice change from the usual “One brown person at a time please” mentality

rumnique1 [10:06 PM]
Exactly, like Aziz Ansari said on Master Of None, “Why can’t there be more than one?” And now there are, and they’re making waves in their respective fields, and that’s super refreshing to see

nimnim [10:07 PM]
But I don’t think they’re stuck in their niches either. There is room for them to grow and change and evolve, because their audience is just so thrilled to have brown people making music for brown people. Fans will remain loyal to them, even through their changes.

rumnique1 [10:08 PM]
Definitely, and it’s kinda bittersweet in MIA’s case because she’s said AIM is her last album

manjot [10:08 PM]
I hope she changes her mind, I really appreciated AIM

rumnique1 [10:08 PM]
I feel like for diaspora pop, she laid the foundations for the Swet Shop Boys and everyone to follow. She made it cool to appreciate a Disco Dancer song like “Jimmy” and sample it.

manjot [10:09 PM]
Yes. I don’t know if enough people credit her for that

rumnique1 [10:09 PM]
Exactly, and a few years later the Swet Shop Boys come along and reclaim a Tamil song like the Benny Lava one. Like all these people are making radio-friendly music that’s got layers for their various audiences to appreciate. Like imagine hearing a Fateh or Horsepowar song used in a TV show, like how cool would that be?!

nimnim [10:12 PM]
SO COOL. I would faint…Actually I would cry, then faint, because I am emotional. I cry when brown people make it in the mainstream from happiness

rumnique1 [10:13 PM]
Same here!

rumnique1 [10:13 PM]
Did you cry with this album? I think I cried through Riz’s previous album Englistan.

nimnim [10:13 PM]
Definitely on Englistan and Eat Pray Love too. Not this one.

manjot [10:13 PM]
I’m apparently unemotional. I have feelings but no tears

nimnim [10:14 PM]
You’re emotionally stable! Certain songs on this one made me emotional, but not cry.

rumnique1 [10:15 PM]
Yeah – with Cashmere I was more nodding along in recognition to the situations they’re talking about.

nimnim [10:15 PM]
I also noticed, the heavy topics are usually paired with a more upbeat song. Like Shottin is HEAVY, but it’s a faster track. It doesn’t really give you the pace to be emotional; it gets you riled up instead. Heems did the same on Eat Pray Thug too. “Home” is the slowest, most somber sounding track but it’s not heavy.

rumnique1 [10:17 PM]
Exactly. I love this line from Din-e-Ilahi by Heems

“They comin’ for the culture man, like they was on a mission…/Used to hate the clothes, they ask where’d I get the stitchin’/Used to call me curry, now they cook it in the kitchen”

Heems is so good here when he gets reflexive.

nimnim [10:17 PM]
I love his drawl in this song. He has the perfect voice for it, it’s so matter-of-fact but it still sounds like a zinger

rumnique1 [10:18 PM]
“Din e Ilahi” is such a lovely track to end the album with. Don’t you think? It’s feels like a Sufi song

nimnim [10:19 PM]
I do agree. It wraps it up nicely

rumnique1 [10:20 PM]
“You can’t escape yourself, please love yourself, please love yourself” – the last line on the song and album.

nimnim [10:20 PM]
That reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s “u” where he says “Loving u is complicated” – talking about loving himself, but it’s the opposite.

manjot [10:22 PM]
When I heard it for the first time yesterday, I wasn’t fond of it. But after reading both of your impressions, I listened to it again, and on its own it’s quite powerful. I think it was too somber for me after listening to such up-beat songs, and I listened to the album in one go.

nimnim [10:25 PM]
It does kind of bring you back down. As one piece of the whole album, it kind of centers you after the hype of the other tracks.

rumnique1 [10:26 PM]
It’s very Sufi-like to me, and the title comes from Mughal emperor Akbar’s self-created religion. It goes back to that hybridity theme again, which is so moving to me.

manjot [10:27]

That’s a great way to sum up the album.

manjot [10:33 PM]

Alright… Good night lovely ladies!

nimnim [10:33 PM]

goodnight! :two_hearts:

rumnique1 [10:33 PM]

Night y’all!

Buy Swet Shop Boys’ album, Cashmere.