Heems and Lapgan’s magic mind meld

Left: Heems, photo by Atif Ateeq. Right: Lapgan, photo by Manal Jakhar.


Even in the Das Racist days, when he was rhyming “Pizza Hut” with “pizza gut” and “pizza butt” for the comic relief of a largely white, largely online audience, it was obvious that Heems had something special. To drop a needle on any track in the Punjabi-American MC’s extended catalog is to be swept away by his preternatural cleverness. His inspired internal rhyme schemes, encyclopedic knowledge of American and South Asian pop culture, and double-take punchlines should be enough to make him a staple of any self-respecting backpacker’s bag. What pushes his work past these dusty confines is a keen awareness of his unique position in the rap world.

Take his verse on Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire’s 2011 ur-posse cut “The Last Huzzah,” for example: Next to Danny Brown, Despot, El-P, eXquire, and fellow Das Racist member Kool A.D., he satirizes himself as the “worst rapper on this track” (certainly not the case) but also astutely quips that he’s the “third coolest.” More importantly, he canonizes the hook of his eternally memeified (and now commercialized) fast food anthem, following “I’m at the Pizza Hut / I’m at the Taco Bell” with Raekwon’s classic “C.R.E.A.M.” bar “The combination made my eyes bleed.”

LAFANDAR — a collaborative album with the producer Lapgan, who grew up on Das Racist and idolized Heems before becoming the inaugural signee to his Veena label — marks Heems’s return to hip-hop after the 2017 dissolution of his second rap crew, Swet Shop Boys with Riz Ahmed and Redinho. Not only is it clear from the first moments of track one — “Stupid Dumb Illiterate,” featuring genre-agnostic, Carnatically trained singer Sid Sriram, that he hasn’t lost a step lyrically; the intervening years seem to have brought him a wisdom to match his wit. The project only gets better as it moves along, with Heems’s wordplay sharpening as Lapgan’s production alchemizes a bottomless vault of obscure South Asian samples into hip-hop gold with increasing flare.

Heems and Lapgan’s mind meld is most locked in on “Kala Tika” and “Bukayo Saka,” two tracks from the album’s back half. The former song has some of the project’s slickest wordplay, with Heems swapping his Vs and Ws with such sleight of hand it might fly under the radar if it weren’t for him introducing the trick in the intro, while Lapgan winds a choral sample tightly around the drums and bass with the obsessive, cinematic precision of a young Kanye West. On the latter track, Lapgan’s stoned, cloudy beat cloaks what is perhaps the punchline of the century: “I roll around with two glizzies like I’m like I’m Slavoj Žižek.”

A full album of tracks like these would have left long-starved Heems heads with plenty to chew on, but he’s further blessed his fans by calling in 13 features across the project’s 12 tracks. Some highlights: Saul Williams delivers a potent spoken-word intro on “Accent,” after which Heems reprises a hidden “T5” verse he performed on Colbert seven years ago over a Dilla-esque tapestry of a beat. Sonnyjim and Abhi the Nomad join Heems for a fearsome three-pronged attack over a dissonant drone and dizzying guitars on “Going For 6.” And Kool Keith sounds absurdly spry for 60 on the boom-bap throwback “Obi Toppin (Darling).”

Heems, Lee Scott, and Cool Calm Pete are all uncharacteristically menacing on “Baba Ganoush,” triple teaming the album’s hardest beat. Sir Michael Rocks and Open Mike Eagle both deliver stellar verses on the slow-rolling “Yellow Chakra,” but Heems remains the center of attention, rhyming “Lexus,” “solar plexus,” “Waheguru please protect us,” “bacon egg and cheese for my breakfast,” and “Life is precious, the government neglect us.” Finally, closer “Yo Momma” unites Heems with fellow rap laureate Fatboi Sharif, who darkens the song’s dreamy instrumental with his deliriously twisted aura. Heems and Sharif’s styles couldn’t be more distinct, but — as with the other guests who apparently moved mountains to contribute to the project — their chemistry is combustible, irresistible, and immediate.