Das Racist succeeds without gimmicks
CAMBRIDGE - Despite their best efforts, Das Racist looked excited on Wednesday night to have gotten as good as they have at being professional rappers. Performing in front of a sold-out crowd at the Middle East Downstairs in support of their recently released debut album, “Relax,’’ the wiseacres from New York, who used to be known for their disorganized and chaotic live shows, held their microphones with fluent authority and delivered their lines - even the self-deprecating ones - like they meant every word.
During an hourlong set that included references to Sun Tzu, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the performance artist Marina Abramovic, the three friends ran through a handful of new songs but focused mostly on fan favorites from the two free mixtapes they released prior to “Relax.’’
As they bounded around the stage, a video screen displayed a grab-bag of imagery related to the group’s preoccupation with race relations and ethnic identity; at one point, it showed a Photoshopped picture of Osama bin Laden riding a cat.
Conspicuously missing from the set was “Hahahaha JK,’’ a song that struck many listeners as a declaration of intent when it was released last year, with its chorus of “We’re not joking/ Just joking/ We are joking.’’ It seems that Das Racist may finally be over that particular joke, which is a relief, because the possibility that they’re not really being serious or sincere in their music has never been all that interesting. Wednesday’s performance proved they are charming and stylish enough that they don’t need to resort to such gimmickry.
Indeed, the only times they seemed half-hearted was when they tried to act like they weren’t proud to be there. One such moment came when Himanshu Suri asked the audience to make some noise; afterward, instead of going with the traditional “I can’t hear you,’’ he declared that the applause had been quite loud enough and would probably keep him going “for another couple jams.’’
Suri said that last word sarcastically, as if the idea of being up on stage and playing “jams’’ struck him as pretty ridiculous. It was a funny line, but one that would have made more sense back when the rappers weren’t as tight as they are now - before they started carrying themselves with real and convincing swagger instead of always hiding behind amusing displays of self-consciousness.
Leon Neyfakh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.