In ‘Tareefan’ (Veere Di Wedding’s marquee track), Badshah steps in not just as a rapper, but a singer too. The music video of the song is debatably leftfield. In a move that is both novel and radical, the video’s director Farah Khan makes Sonam and Kareena Kapoor mouth the song’s lyrics. The effect of women lip syncing to a man’s voice is so tongue-in-cheek that the effect is not once disconcerting. Besides, the tune’s visualisation does prove an obvious truth—everyone is singing Badshah these days.  

Only two weeks before ‘Tareefan’ surfaced, the country’s music channels were playing ‘Buzz’ once every hour. Though Badshah had given this song its music and had also written the lyrics, its video’s protagonist was its singer—Aastha Gill, the musician’s long-time collaborator. The credit, this time, was hers. Badshah was given a minute to rap. That’s all he needed. It was clear he had begun to peak.

Badshah doesn’t release his songs. He drops them. Though the 32-year-old has been making music for over a decade now, it’s only after he was discovered by Bollywood in 2014 (‘Saturday Saturday’, ‘Abhi Toh Party’) did Badshah become visibly prolific. In 2016, for instance, he gave the Hindi film industry seven of its hits. Every producer’s delight, he has been conspicuous since. From the rapper’s discography, however, you’d maybe find only a dozen tracks you can guiltlessly return to. Three of these—‘Tareefan’, ‘Buzz’, ‘Kareja’—were all released this year. They’re all dissimilar. They’re all good. 

***

In 2016, the Punjabi film Kaptaan featured a song, ‘Oscar’, performed by its actor Gippy Grewal. Badshah came in to rap. Dissonance makes you pay attention, and Badshah seems to know that. After Grewal had lulled your senses with a tune that is more melody than beat, you heard Badshah suddenly say to an imagined love, “If you’re an Oscar, I’m Leonardo [DiCaprio]. I too will win you one day.” Later, he compares this woman to Kim Kardarshian. Not all of Badshah’s references, however, are borrowed from pop culture. In ‘Wakhra Swag’ (2015), arguably the musician’s best song thus far, he alludes to Gucci, Yamaha, but also calls himself ‘India’s Obama’. Thankfully, he never does take himself seriously. 

Badshah doesn’t release his songs. He drops them. Though the 32-year-old has been making music for over a decade now, it’s only after he was discovered by Bollywood in 2014 (‘Saturday Saturday’, ‘Abhi Toh Party’) did Badshah become visibly prolific.

The playful contemporariness that informs his independent music seems sometimes altogether missing from the rap we hear in his Bollywood offerings. Badshah never tires of saying that life, music, opinions, almost everything, is subjective. But that said, he doesn’t delude himself about Bollywood’s limits. While the industry’s lavish promotions help his tracks reach a larger audience, he does admit that Bollywood impedes his art. In 2016, he told the Hindustan Times, “I’m comfortable doing independent music. It gives me more freedom as an artist. I enjoy that more than being given a brief to work with.” Long before it was appropriated by Kapoor & Sons in 2016, ‘Chull’ had been independently released in 2014. The single is said to have blared from BMWs in Chandigarh. Sector 17 knew Badshah well before we did. 

***

The now disbanded rap crew Mafia Mundeer was once made up of all the musicians who have given Punjabi music a modern validity in recent years—Yo Yo Honey Singh, Raftaar, Badshah. Once Yo Yo went mainstream, the already present cracks in this half-underground collective began to show. Badshah, for instance, appeared with Yo Yo in his ‘Get Up Jawani’ (2011) video, and was reduced to a spare. As Yo Yo cavorted with Kashmira Shah, Badshah looked uncomfortable. It seemed obvious he did not belong. He soon walked out of Yo Yo’s shadow. Yo Yo, on the other hand, walked into another.

Details of Yo Yo Singh’s mental affliction are fuzzy, but the multiple rumours of his hubris make one thing clear—his career had become untenable. Badshah came to fill a vacuum, and he filled it with music that was unobjectionable in comparison. In her 2013 article, a Caravan journalist quotes Badshah as saying, “If I tell you a joke about sex, you find it funny, but if Honey Singh rhymes it, how is that different? What happened to just chilling and enjoying the music?” Years later, speaking to The Hindu in 2017, Badshah again insisted that “entertainment” trumps “conscientiousness”, but he did add, “There is more fun in teasing rather than being crass. A lot of my songs are heard by families, so I keep them clean. I want the maximum target group.” He did want cake, and predictably, he wanted to eat it too.    

Badshah, it’s clear, cleaned much of the muck Yo Yo had left in his wake. Still objects of desire, Badshah dedicated his songs to women who all had agency. He exaggerated his masculinity with an irony that wouldn’t leave feminists irate. Barring the odd number, he never rendered alcohol or cannabis exotic.

Much of Yo Yo Honey Singh’s repertoire never exceeded the triad of women, booze and drugs. His decadence bordered on debauchery all too often. At a concert in March 2016, he said he was a Rolls Royce while Badshah was only a Nano. Asked about the jibe in an interview later that year, Badshah said, “I have a lot of answers I could give to that, but I hope he comes back and gives us a good song.” Our collective intrigue only fuels such rivalries, but Badshah, it’s clear, cleaned much of the muck Yo Yo had left in his wake. Still objects of desire, Badshah dedicated his songs to women who all had agency. He exaggerated his masculinity with an irony that wouldn’t leave feminists irate. Barring the odd number, he never rendered alcohol or cannabis exotic. Rappers are seldom gentlemen, but it was endearing to see B-A-D Shah still look out of place when surrounded by women near a swimming pool.

***

Before he adopted ‘Badshah’ as his name, Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia was, by all accounts, a nerd. Trained to become a civil engineer, Aditya was once obsessed with mathematics. Given that rap is all about meter, his love for numbers apparently serves him well, even when he is ad-libbing lines to put his toddler of a daughter to sleep. Once he has finished working on a track, he takes it to his loyal yet discerning set of fans—his cousins and also Diljit Dosanjh. “I respect him and his opinion,” Badshah had said in 2017. Their song ‘Proper Patola’ (2013) was a spontaneous collaboration. One listen and Diljit is said to have been hooked. We presume theirs is a natural affinity. They’re both deferential and polite when faced with a camera. More than that, they share a fetish for shoes. Badshah owns over 500 pairs. Kanye West, a clear inspiration, runs his own fashion line—Yeezy. Badshah now has BADFIT.

Badshah had once confessed that the majority of the people he saw seemed depressed. “I just want to give them three minutes to dance their heart out,” he had said. Though the therapeutic value of his tunes is hard to assess, it can safely be said that his music has slowly matured.  

Badshah’s nods to the West often leave him a target for criticism. Unused to the idea of a tribute, India still uses its 90s remix as a yardstick for what Badshah intends as a homage. His adaptations ‘Kala Chashma’ (2016) and ‘Humma Humma’ (2016) were both mocked for being inauthentic. “But you haven’t changed anything” was the common refrain. In his defence, Badshah told interviewer Rajeev Masand, “It’s like appearing for a CAT examination. The questions you leave out matter more than the ones you attempt. I didn’t want mess these songs up.” As far as his social media critics go, he quipped, “Funny how party-hoppers at night suddenly become intellectuals in the morning.” Badshah could have just quoted numbers instead. ‘Kala Chashma’ now has 415 million hits on YouTube, while ‘Humma Humma’ has 229 million.  

Badshah had once confessed that the majority of the people he saw seemed depressed. “I just want to give them three minutes to dance their heart out,” he had said. Though the therapeutic value of his tunes is hard to assess, it can safely be said that his music has slowly matured. Badshah is scared he’ll produce duds, but his two other fears are being repetitive and dated. Indian rappers, we’ve seen, all have a shelf life. Their song-writing rarely evolves. Badshah, though, seems to have a few more tricks. The musician once claimed, “I’m Badshah, I do whatever I want.” Luckily, he had said that with a laugh.

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