It initially seems strange that, after coming so far from the joke-rapper appellation foisted on them after 2008’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bello” was perceived by many as a novelty song, Das Racist would release a proper debut more silly and inane than most of their mixtape material. Less dense and abundant than those two fonts of shambolic brilliance, Relax has more hooks, bigger beats, and more overtly delivered jokes, which at first seems to indicate an inability to port their sound to a bigger platform.
Witness lead single “Michael Jackson,” a skittering banger that hinges on a deceptively simple hook: “Michael Jackson/A million dollars/You feel me?/Holler.” At first it sounds like a lazy, confusing expression of vapid excess and dreary immodesty. On closer inspection, though, it’s clear that these guys are parodying themselves, building a disjointed raft of pop-culture detritus lashed together with big-money signifiers and ironic stupidity. One song into their first album and they’re already tweaking their own personas, mocking and twisting their image and striving for new and stranger horizons.
Following this pattern, it takes a few listens to realize that Relax is even more complex than Das Racist’s mixtapes, shaping the piles of referential clutter into a kind of running commentary that doubles as fantastically dexterous rap. As a balance to the vague conceptual choruses of tracks like “Booty in the Air,” which leave space for broad jesting and empty bluster, Kool A.D. and Himshu’s verses are bound tight, knotted with allusive material and endless pop-culture references. It’s a dual structure that even better defines their status as brainy jokers, positioning themselves at a strange nexus between mockery of the form and deferent respect for it.
Relax finds Das Racist operating as both consumers and creators of pop culture, spawning an endless pomo cycle of criticism and observation. They use their status as ethnic and stylistic outsiders as a basis for an aesthetic that strenuously avoids labels, making salient points about race and commercialism under the guise of asinine charlatanism.
In this sense, the entire album begs for analysis while constantly reminding us how pointless it is to try and understand what these guys are trying to accomplish. It’s through this kind of lyricism that Relax cements the group’s individual grammar, a patchwork of Bollywood film references, local color, and mixed high- and low-culture nods. It also establishes them as modern descendants of the Beastie Boys, delivering a similar rancorous mixture of love and impertinence. This style reaches a peak in the opening section of “Michael Jackson,” which finds Himshu spinning a ridiculously complicated verse that dissolves into meta-textual blather: “I am fucking great at rapping.” Such verses are often so impenetrable that distinctive beats might have proved distracting, and the music here is minimal, similar to their mixtape production but with more sheen.
Despite the many highs, Relax is still a debut, and at times finds the group struggling with the specifics of their sound. A production turn from Diplo seems wasted on the thin “Happy Rappy,” a pointless doodle that runs for two minutes and never builds to anything. The group’s faux-slacker posturing may account for this and the strange reappearance of “Rainbow in the Dark” from Shut Up, Dude, but such moments feel like holes in an otherwise marvelous effort from one of the most probing, funny duos in recent memory.