In a post-post-racial world, Das Racist gets first laugh

Brooklyn dodgers deliver high context identity politricks

There's a moment of quiet impact in a now-famous Dave Chappelle sketch about a "Leave it to Beaver"-esque family whose last name happens to be homophonous with a certain racial epithet. Clad in milkman-minstrel garb, Chappelle finally turns to the camera and utters a smiling SOS: "This racism is killing me inside."

Rappers Victor Vazquez and Himanshu Suri operate with less comedic masochism but with a similarly absurdist eye for racial politics, cloaking their observations in a stoned but studious tone that could rightly be deemed subversive. It's Chappellian-via-Wesleyan, less "Did he really just say that?" and more "Wait, what did he just say?" As Das Racist, the Brooklyn group self-released two stellar and much-blogged-about mixtapes in 2010, Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man. On the surface, Das Racist consisted of a couple of wildly talented jokesters musing on dumb shit: junk food, rap culture, weed. Underneath, they were a couple of wildly talented jokesters with a penchant for profundity. "We are family," goes the deadpan chorus to "Puerto Rican Cousins," from Sit Down, Man. "At least that's what we look like we might be."

"Victor being half-black, half-white and me being brown, we're spectators automatically," explains the Indian-American Suri. But for Das Racist, the preachy commentary unique to indie rap was never an option. "In my life, racism is obviously something I take very seriously. And humor is a way to cope with it. I don't think it's something to be taken lightly. At the same time, I think music is a medium in which a lot of the discussion about it has been exhausted."

Das Racist is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to unearthing new modes of discourse. The group's deceptively dense lyrics come in a salvo of delirious non-sequiturs and obscure cultural references, all delivered at exhilarating speed. It often takes several listens to locate the heart of what Vazquez in particular is saying, which, sometimes, is nothing at all. You'd drive yourself crazy trying to extricate all the words from their literal and abstract implications, yet it's impossible to listen without paying attention.

Poets in practice, Vazquez and Suri are as evasive in conversation as on record. Suri insists there's no coherent method to Das Racist's madness, offering only half-morsels of explanation for the group's unique style. "It's a by-product of kickin' it," he shrugs. Vazquez is likewise enigmatic even while appearing frank. "Our shit is pretty basic. We rap, and it's a little weird." Or, they're a little weird, and they rap. Often about rapping. Call it "meta," but the term shortchanges the brains behind its creation.

Relax, the group's studio debut, finds Das Racist faced with the familiar predicament of trying to appeal to a wider audience while maintaining its sense of self. Faced with a fork in the road and unsure where to turn, Das Racist instead chooses to explore every available option. The results are mixed. A maximalist record with minimalist undertones, Relax benefits from a bigger budget and an accompanying bigger sound. No longer satisfied with the hazy-lazy shoebox beats of tracks past, the group commissioned a bouquet of adequately warped club bangers from producers like Diplo and Yeasayer's Anand Wilder.

Concurrently, Das Racist's arcane lyrical approach has devolved further into straight-up nonsense than ever before. (On lead single "Michael Jackson": "Michael Jackson/One million dollars/You feel me?") Elsewhere, unsubtle tracks like "Booty in the Air" ruin the joke by leading with the punch line. Still, there are lots of high points. "Shut Up, Man" is a cosmic track of Def Jux proportions wherein El-P gives the guest spot of his career. The Danny Brown collab "Power" features a host of great performances and an instantly classic Das Racist chorus ("It's too easy/Even if I told you about it you probably wouldn't even believe me") that shouldn't work metrically or otherwise but dazzles nonetheless.

It's OK that Relax doesn't quite fire on all cylinders. We've already seen what Vazquez and Suri are capable of; to allow them their rumspringa seems only fair, especially given their unparalleled commitment to what they do. "How much Common do you listen to?" Suri asks in response to the question of how rap feeds his soul. "I feel exactly identical to Common in every way," he continues. "Hip-hop is in everything I do. I eat, breathe and sleep it. Hip-hop is the love of my life." As if to balance the scales, Vazquez explains, "It's kind of a black people thing. But other people do it, too."