I had almost no expectations coming into the new project from Adil Omar. While undeniably talented, the producer and rapper from Islamabad had previously released his single ‘Champions‘, which was, I think, one of the worst songs the artist has dropped. The production is interesting and layered, as Omar’s production always is, but the lyrics begin with an eye-roll: ‘this is the greatest song you ever heard’. Ugh. And while Omar’s bars in the song are pretty varied, they are all in service of this empty narcissism. It’s difficult not to just want to shrug your shoulders and think ‘if you say so dude’.
But on ‘We Need To Talk About Adil’, the Islamabad artist takes his ballooning sense of self-importance and channels it into a spell-binding bit of music. It’s like a car crash – it’s difficult to look away. But in a good way.
The production here is, again, brilliant and eclectic. The bursts of harmonium, the tabla mixed with the weird bouncy synths. It’s odd, offbeat but kooky and works well for the story that Omar is trying to tell.
And that is, of course, the story of himself. The story of Adil Omar. And, just like the beat, it’s weird and twisted. The main crux of the conflict arrives when Omar confesses: ‘my story begins with raps cardinal sin of being born in the money’. Later in the song, he raps ‘if I was black or white by 25, I’d be a millionaire’. These are outrageous things to say, with Omar acting as though being born into wealth and being born brown instead of black are huge factors for why he hasn’t been as successful as he expected.
For some listeners, this might be the moment where they roll their eyes and switch off. But there’s real honesty here. Omar is trying to work out his place in the world. How can he rap while being born into wealth? Rap, after all, is a genre of music that has almost entirely been created by disenfranchised and working class black men. Where is the conflict if you didn’t grow up in the Bronx, or in Compton, or South Side Chicago, or even Lyari?
So Omar tries to locate himself. His father died at a young age: ‘Dad’s dead body in the TV room, a couple thousand people at the funeral’. It’s a pretty striking image of a lonely death followed by a very public requiem. Then the scene switches to him and his sister saving their mother ‘frothing at the mouth’ from an epileptic fit. He moves to family politics – ‘a family run like an industry’ – and how they swung like a pendulum between poverty and wealth. He even goes so far as to mention how he was almost electrocuted in the shower.
This is a list of challenges Omar has had to face, all spit out here for the listener to judge. And this is why the song is so interesting: Omar seems obsessed by his own credibility. Should he be rapping? The music video has Omar wandering around what looks like a huge house, with a big opulent library and sprawling grounds. This isn’t a ‘started from the bottom now we here’ scenario, but Omar is trying to say that the struggle, the challenge, was no less intense.
This is not empty, boring, vacuous narcissism like he displays in ‘Champions’. This is self-reflexive, introspective track about what it is to be an artist in Pakistan, what it means for him to rap, and to create art in his own socio-economic context. It certainly isn’t for everyone – no doubt people will be turned off by the justifications provided here, or the endless self-aggrandizement. But Adil Omar is all in, and there’s something pretty fascinating about that.