Swet Shop Boys’ 2014 debut Swet Shop EP was an exercise in claiming space in the auditory landscape that lies squarely in the intersection of New York rap and Indian film music. On Swet Shop, Indian New York-based rapper Heems and Pakistani London-based actor/rapper Riz MC glided their way through a sonic architecture built by four different producers from rummaged pieces of Hindi and Tamil film soundtracks, Punjabi poetry readings and Urdu ghazals.
With each song they mark one distinct region of South Asia as the chosen backdrop to their diaspora-centric lyrics, only to switch to an entirely different region on the next song. The result is a whirlwind musical tour of South Asia that perfectly frames Riz and Heems’ sometimes proud, often playful lyrics.
On Cashmere, Swet Shop Boys’ newest release, the duo’s attitude toward production has changed entirely. Instead of having four different producers for four songs to help it jump effortlessly between sounds spanning the range of music from the subcontinent, it has just London-based producer Redinho to establish a singular sound for the album. Here, the vibrant, unrefined spontaneity of Swet Shop’s production has been traded in in favor of a darker, more concise sound that is only hazily evocative of a generalized South Asian musical style. If Swet Shop EP was a nomadic search through South Asia for a sound to commit to, Cashmere is the decision to settle down.
The group’s lyrics, too, have taken a turn for serious matters. While Cashmere sees Heems and Riz try their hand at a love song for the first time while being littered with scraps of the same braggadocio that made up the mass of their EP, the majority of the album is dedicated to issues faced by youth in the South Asian diaspora. Album opener “T5” finds Heems in the midst of the all too common “random” security check at the airport as he raps, “TSA always wanna burst my bubble / Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.” On “Shoes Off,” Riz meditates on youth being pushed to radicalization: “MI5 is giving the boy stress / Now he’s in Syria lookin’ to fight west,” he muses.
While the duo’s lighthearted treatment of serious issues facing its communities lands perfectly throughout Cashmere, the album’s brevity makes it hard for Heems and Riz to lend any sort of nuance to any of the multitude of issues that they pay homage to. While racial profiling in airports is a common topic on Cashmere, rarely does the duo go beyond the basic level of simply stating that it can be a pain.
Perhaps what’s really frustrating about Cashmere is that it falls just short of being a truly noteworthy album both sonically and politically. The pulsating energy of Redinho’s production is apparent despite its relative sobriety. Its twists and turns are carved perfectly to showcase Riz and Heems’ vocals.
Yet there is nothing truly distinctive about it — it is simply another well crafted piece of music. Heems’ vocals here have taken on some of this sobriety. On Cashmere, he sounds more tired than ever before. While his tiredness perfectly underscores the political themes of the album, on less serious songs he merely sounds bored.
Cashmere has become the latest in a series of works by South Asian artists (M.I.A., for instance) who set themselves up as advocates for South Asian communities but eschew the nuance required to play such a role in order to grasp at visibility. For the members of Swet Shop Boys, just as for many artists before them, this refusal to acknowledge diversity contributes to the solidification of South Asia (and the diaspora, for that matter) as a monolith.
Both Riz and Heems come from different regions of South Asia, practice different religions and live in different cities. Heems even makes this comparison explicit on “Phone Tap” (“His family from India but Riz Pakistani / My family from Pakistan I’m Hindu Punjabi,”) but even these cleanly laid out identities get muddled as Heems changes his claimed religious affiliation multiple times throughout the album. He takes the problems faced by Muslim men upon himself, sometimes even taking problems more relevant to the Middle East upon himself through frequent references to Israel and Syria. Whether this is a gesture of solidarity or simply riffing on ideas, it ultimately serves to do little more than to conflate a variety of South Asian identities into one homogeneous mass.