Dhanji has spent the past four years working feverishly to probe the limits of his genre-blending iconoclasm and restless, larger-than-life imagination. The seven mixtapes he’s dropped since 2019—five in 2020 alone—are all over the map, setting his off-kilter, multi-lingual flow over everything from stoner boom-bap (The Dhaniya Tape) and cinematic trap (Drive-In Cinema) to drug-addled industrial music (Zorba collab DZs Control) and spectral flips of old Bollywood classics (Lab Rats). His trend-dodging alt-rap has won over a small legion of fans captivated by the emotional resonance of his voice and the fragmented unpredictability of his bars, delivered in a loopy, lean-laced Ahmedabadi street patois. But it all felt a little rough around the edges, like lab experiments that broke containment before they were fully formed: Dhanji was still looking for a sound to fit his outsized ambitions.
Not anymore. All he needed was some funk. On his debut full-length, RUAB, the 25-year-old rapper borrows heavily from the genre’s various incarnations—the raucous hard funk of James Brown, the smooth, portamento synth leads of West Coast G-funk, even the mongrel psych-funk of iconic Bollywood composers Kalyanji-Anandji and R.D. Burman—to create the perfect cinematic backdrop to his absurd, off-the-rails rhymes. Propulsive basslines slouch and swagger in lockstep with tightly syncopated drums and bright horns spar with keening synths, all filtered through the dusty, sepia-toned lens of 1970s Indian parallel cinema. RUAB sounds like the background score for a Blaxploitation-meets-Hindi-film-noir movie, with Dhanji and his hometown of Ahmedabad as the main protagonists.
Samples from a 1988 CNN interview with James Brown and the 1954 Bollywood classic Taxi Driver are littered across the record, along with plenty of pop culture references ranging from Bill Burr to Kishore Kumar. The Taxi Driver reference is particularly telling. In the film, Dev Anand plays a cabbie nicknamed “Hero,” an everyman do-gooder who hangs out in seedy nightclubs and gets entangled in a love triangle with two struggling entertainers. At its heart, Taxi Driver is a love letter to Mumbai, as seen through the windshield of Hero’s 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster. On RUAB, Dhanji—a self-described cinephile—gives the same treatment to his hometown of Ahmedabad, or as he likes to call it, “Amdavad.”
But it’s not the Ahmedabad of contemporary national imagination that he wants to celebrate, with its prohibition-state social conservatism, its neighborhoods segregated by faith (a legacy of the 2002 pogroms that killed thousands), and its new hyper-capitalist icons (the city is home to at least 49 of India’s 170-odd billionaires). Dhanji’s Amdavad is a grimier place, full of struggling petit-bourgeois traders, chain-smoking gangsters, and corrupt, power-hungry police. It’s a city of narrow-laned pols and dimly lit highway underpasses, where delinquent teenagers hide from the cops as they get drunk on illicit liquor. Dhanji and his pan-India crew of producers and collaborators—including Circle Tone, MLHVR, EBE, and unfuckman—invoke funk’s sleazy vitality as an antidote to the chrome-and-glass sterility the city’s development-obsessed leaders seek to impose on his Amdavad.
Walking—or maybe driving—down these streets, Dhanji is RUAB’s quirky everyman “hero,” alternately amused and perplexed by the contradictions of creating art within the constraints of contemporary capitalism. Blending autobiography with narrative fiction (and a generous helping of gleefully juvenile humor), he prods at the tension between external value—as denoted by sales receipts and streaming numbers—and the artist’s intrinsic worth. There are other concerns too: class and mental health on the lovesick synth-funk of “Magaj Ka Bimari,” meditations on contemporary masculinity on the sparse, darkly hued “Mulaqat” (which features a starkly introspective verse from Mumbai MC Gravity). But the album’s best moments arise from its central thematic conflict, between ruab (usually translated as “panache,” or maybe “swag”) and abru (a Dhanji neologism for externally derived value). The title track’s pulsing bassline and hypnotic drum grooves set the scene as Dhanji blends rap braggadocio with existential doubt, a nihilist philosopher with a penchant for loony ad-libs. His stream-of-consciousness rhymes jump from messianic flex to identity crisis to knowingly cringe visual puns, all delivered in an idiosyncratic, beat-switching flow that sounds like Lil Wayne channeling Javed Jaffrey’s performance on “Mumbhai.”
Over the languid skulk of “In Event of Change, Money & Notoriety,” Dhanji grapples with the corrupting influence of fame and cash, fusing pathos with goofy piss-takes on “struggling artist” clichés. Posse cut “What Would the Credit Department Do?” brings in a coterie of underground rappers from across the country—Bagi Munda, Faizan, Arpit Bala, Lit Trust, and Siyaahi—to run roughshod over PSV’s constantly shifting drum grooves, with multilingual lyrics that shine a spotlight on the transactional nature of a music industry that consistently undervalues them. There’s more than a hint of punk rock’s influence on this one, from its Devo-style demystification of music industry glamour to the stomping menace of the guest features. “Fuck a corporation,” Dhanji snarls over a reverb-drenched drum fill. “But it all wouldn’t have been possible/Without a corporation/Par kab tak? (But for how long?)”
The album’s emotional and thematic center is the eight-minute-long “1 Khabri / 2 Numbari.” The first half of the track sticks to the blueprint, all lilting keys and chromatic bass, as Dhanji once again focuses his attention on the interplay between class, social capital, and self-identity, riding the beat like a leaned-out Gujju Danny Brown. Then the keys give way to jagged industrial synths and cavernous sub-bass. Dhanji finally drops the sneer he’s been holding up as a shield and opens up about the personal trauma he’s been hinting at throughout the record: an alcoholic father’s repeated trips to jail, his mother’s suicidal ideation, poverty’s corrosive action on the human spirit. Coming hot on the heels of the insalubrious bounce and cartoonish menace of the rest of the album, this sudden swerve into true darkness hits like a masterfully disguised suckerpunch.
Not all of Dhanji’s left-field experiments are as successful. The classical piano-led lounge-funk of “Put That on Wax” sounds like it belongs in a luxury cruise commercial rather than an experimental rap album. When the producers stray from funk-as-world-building into straight tribute—as Circle Tone does on the P-Funk indebted “Thaltej Blues”—the result can sound flat and unconvincing. Even with these missteps, RUAB is a refreshingly unique and rewarding debut from an artist making a strong claim as Indian rap’s most innovative auteur.