Eight years can take a musician from the scenes of the underground to the popular sensation of the mainstream. However, the reality of Kashmir is astonishingly different where even the most ‘popular’ artists are known to a niche audience; and although, the music scene in Kashmir has seen immense development in the past few years, there is still an element of uncertainty that comes with the choice of pursuing music as a career option in Kashmir. The consequences of conflict leave art and its creators in a state of constant dilemma; at once it is important to create, but the very act of survival in itself is an act of resistance. Under such circumstances, is creating art worthwhile at the cost of survival?—one has to ask.
Even with countless limitations, many from the creative persuasion persevere, with one such artist being Koshur (Kashmiri) Hip Hop artist SXR, who announced the release of his debut album Shalakh with a freestyle titled “8 Wari”—celebrating eight years of being in the game. The infectious debut single that featured SOS and shared the same title as the album, saw the three rappers trade bars in Kashmiri over a solid trap beat produced by Semmi. Prxphecy, one of the first beat-makers (and a duo) from Kashmir, have a major contribution in the album’s production, which is worth all the applause it can garner. In addition to that, the album also has production credits from Semmi and Ahmer; the latter is also credited as the mix and master engineer and is also featured on “Warzone,” the final track on the nine-track album.
Music Video: 8 Wari, by SXR
The album opener titled “The Native Son” features MC Kash delivering an exceptionally poetic and heartfelt spoken word over an instrumental with dense synth lines. The one-minute intro is a testament to the emcee’s unwavering resilience and the importance of rap music in Kashmir, with lines such as: “Straight out of the fuckin’ dungeons of livin’ hell / Where rap is just a medium for the stories I tell.” With Kash’s passion intact and his poetry as intricate as ever, it only makes sense that he continues to make more music. While his contribution to the genre will always be upheld for its paramount importance at an initial and developing stage, Kash’s return will always be anticipated among Kashmir’s music-listening audience.
Audio: Intro (feat. MC Kash) (The Native Son), by SXR
“Nayi Shuruwaat” is a reflection on the rapper’s journey from Jasim and Gazanfar to SXR, navigating from a personal struggle to a more professional one. While the song is the documentation of a new beginning, the tone is filled with immense grit and resilience, making it sound like a victory lap more than the hunger of an artist trying to gain attention from the people. From a production standpoint, it is a mix of bouncy trap drums complimented by a very subdued line of 808s. At one point, the vocals are mixed very low, only to make an impactful return with an extremely important line: “Wane booziv amich wazaahat Kaeshir paeth” (translated “Now let me elucidate it in Kashmiri”). While the content of the line might seem banal to many, the significance comes from that fact that SXR make a conscious choice to rap in Kashmiri with a razor-sharp seriousness. At a time when Kashmiris frown and disregard their own language, the collective of Koshur Nizam, in a Hegelian sense are negating this absurd thesis. They continue to uphold and represent their identity as Kashmiris by rapping in the Kashmiri language while also being equally adept at rapping in other languages known to Kashmiris.
Audio: Nayi Shuruwaat, by SXR
With the sample choice and an emphasis on the drum section, “Astagfirullah” straight away sounds like a 90’s throwback track. While the drums are finely trap-flavoured, the song is an introspective look at the importance of faith in the rapper’s life. It is concurrent with rap music’s history of exploring religion and belief as a central force in Black people’s plight against oppression and against White supremacy. While SXR’s performance on the more melodic parts of the song could have been better or polished with slight autotune, the rapper manages to captivate the listener with an engaging listening experience.
Audio: Astagfirullah, by SXR
“Faasley” is easily the most stand-out track on the album, especially due to SXR’s melodic flows that are extremely evocative and expressive of the sentiment of love explored throughout the song. The melodic trap beat is facilitated with a vocal sample that enunciates the theme of heartbreak, loss and longing. SXR raps about being in love at a distance, both figurative and literal, often blurring the lines between the two. Who or what is the feeling of longing directed towards?—one is compelled to ask. The best comparison for “Faasley” would be Common’s 1994 classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” in which Hip Hop is personified as a woman. The mellow and heartfelt vocal performance is refined by the quality use of autotune throughout the song, which makes the melodies of the song much more prominent—and is exactly the kind of refinement “Astagfirullah” lacks quite a bit of.
Music Video: Faasley (Prod. by Prxphecy & Timmy Holiday), by SXR
The album’s thematic progression up until this point is in terms of the introspection, from least to most introspective, which makes “Gunah Panin (Interlude)” the most profound song on the album. With a vocal sample similar to that of “Faasley” and a laid-back drum loop, SXR raps about the very essence of living in a conflict zone and how it permeates into people as well, shedding light on various social evils that plague Kashmir—such as dowry and a lack of purpose. For once, a Kashmiri musician doesn’t shy away from holding Kashmiris accountable for a life they’ve envisioned for themselves. More than aiming direct criticism at society, the song is a critique towards the people who have created such a society. The song ends with the proclamation that it is “Gunah Panin” (translated “my/our own sins”) that are responsible for the state Kashmiris are in. While it might seem problematic for many, the more appropriate connotation of the phrase is that of a cultural expression. It has more to do with the shortcomings of the Kashmiri people than with religion and orthodoxy. SXR’s sincere and honest delivery on this album is testament to his skill as a prolific emcee. The track effortlessly transitions into a skit, which is as funny as it is nuanced, given that it marks a shift in the album’s tone and pace.
Audio: Gunah Panin (Interlude), by SXR
All the three songs on the back-end have a feature and are filled with braggadocio raps, which have become a staple in the South Asian Hip Hop scene. The title track “Shalakh” with SOS is filled with witty punchlines and immaculate flow switches from all three rappers. It is a showcase of lyrical and technical prowess and while it exhibits the competitive side of each emcee, the result is one entertaining verse after another, making the song a worthwhile collaborative effort. The penultimate track “Haal” is the only underwhelming song on the album. It lacks concrete direction and is unsure of where it is going; the song tries to explore existential dread but immediately maunders into a brag-rap, making it difficult to comprehend. Even though the effort to add diversity in the flows and delivery on the album is admirable, SXR’s performance on the song comes across as rigid and stoic, which doesn’t compliment his otherwise organic approach to song-writing. Imaad’s verse, however, is thoroughly enjoyable, complimented by the dark vibe of the instrumental.
Music Video: Shalakh (Prod. by Semmi), by SXR x SOS
The album comes to end with “Warzone,” a track that features a verse from Ahmer, with the title as a clear reference to Kashmir. Arranged with a lead guitar-centric melody and a catchy chorus, both SXR and Ahmer in their verses appear unapologetic about being rappers in a conflict zone, which is something not many can claim: “Khauf ke saaye mein palay badhay / Bandook ki nauk pe hum jee rahe” (translated “We grew up under the shadows of fear / with the muzzle of a gun pointed at our heads”). Even when they’re at the point of bragging, there is a sense of purpose as to why they are doing it, with each verse adding to their affirmations. There is an unexplainable seriousness that one associates with Ahmer’s voice, especially since he raps like he means every single word, with honesty and conviction. “Do hazaar barah se hum hi bus / Mera matlab main aur Gazafar” (translated “It is just us since 2012 / I mean, me and Gazanfar”) is essentially the collective spirit that Hip Hop has always stood for.
Audio: Warzone (feat. Ahmer), by SXR
As an album that marks a new beginning, Shalakh doesn’t have thematic or sonic cohesion, but it doesn’t require it either—it works proficiently as a solid collection of songs; there are bangers and bars as well as introspection and heartbreak. For the rapper, Shalakh is a manifestation of the toil and hard work of the past eight years. SXR is a long way from being a mainstream sensation, but in the underground, those who know Koshur Hip Hop give him the crown of a true OG (Original Gangsta). He deserves it after this latest album release with irreconcilable bits that are made consistent by his ability to bring together the who-is-who’s of Koshur Hip Hop in one of the year’s most awaited debuts.