DIVINE talks new album Punya Paap, creative drive: 'This is our chance, there cannot be any blocks'
Fully in the driver’s seat with Punya Paap, the rapper never thinks about creative blocks. “We came from a place and genre was never there,” DIVINE says. “It was do or die for us.”
It was only five years ago, when “Mere Gully Mein” released via Sony Music India, that rapper DIVINE stood atop a vegetable pushcart in the music video and brought in an unshakeable rap hook with fellow Mumbai hip-hop artist Naezy. In 2020, for the video “Level Up,” his collab with Punjabi star Ikka, DIVINE is standing on a Bentley and doesn’t even look out of place.
The first taste of his new album Punya Paap arrived with the title track and its haunting music video, rife with motifs of rebirth, death and sin, even as the rapper punched out bars like: “Tu daddy pe tha/Mein Maggi pe tha”, indicating that a rags to riches story is a well that isn’t going to run dry.
Over a call, DIVINE explains that everything he references on the album — from cricket stars like Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to gaming lexicon like GG (good game) and Christian occurrences like the holiday of Pentecost — are simply based on everything he feels and sees around him. “I can only reference the things that I have felt or heard. These are things I heard from the TV, the news, a friend or a family member. That’s how I use my references, and it’s something that I’m interested in.”
He knows people may not get some of these references but it doesn’t stop him. “You should always leave room for your fans to go out there and research about what you’re trying to say,” he observes. Some fans dig so deep, however, that they find stuff that DIVINE never even thought about in the first place. “Like in ‘Kohinoor’, there’s a line in which I say, ‘Pehle kuch nahi tha, ab chaar din baad sab sab kuch dekha.’ I saw a fan say in a reaction video how on the fourth day, god gave us light. I never thought that, but it’s incredible.”
Interestingly, the song “Kohinoor” features a sort of foreshadowing of Punya Paap, with lyrics that say, “Abhi bhi karte punya abhi bhi kartey paap hai”. DIVINE mentions that he had the title in mind for his first album, but since Kohinoor was already in place, he knew what his second album would be called. Released within a year of Kohinoor, the rapper peppers in multiple mentions of the phrase “Punya Paap” across 11 tracks. “When I was in the studio, I was just saying that [phrase] and the producers let it stay. They said they’d let it stick, even when I asked if it was sounding repetitive. They said, ‘No it’s good, let it be.’”
As much as this is DIVINE’s album, the producers (iLL Wayno, Byrd, Shah Rule) and guest artists (Nas, Cocoa Sarai, Dutchavelli, Stylo G) elevate Punya Paap to another level. Guwahati-bred Rajdeep Sinha aka Stunnah Beatz takes over beatsmith duties and delivers strikingly on songs like the opening track “3:59 AM”, an indefatigable earworm called “Shehnai”, and more. “Stunnah’s 808s (beat production) are like dal and rice. He just kills every beat with his 808s. I went to his studio the next day and before that, I’d sent him a WhatsApp voice note, with the rough hook. I went to the studio and the instrument in the back was a shehnai and I thought, ‘My life is like a shehnai.’ It sounded very right and I was in that state of mind and it’s one of my favourite songs on the album because I’m not trying too hard on that track,” the rapper says.
Meanwhile, DIVINE-run collective Gully Gang’s producer Karan Kanchan establishes himself as more than just a trap and bass music maker, tapping into lo-fi aesthetics on the poignant “Mera Bhai” and a shimmering bop like “Disco Rap” featuring Mumbai rappers MC Altaf and D’Evil. One of the more incredible inclusions, even for DIVINE himself, is “Satya”, whose chorus samples the famous hook “Goli maar bheje mein” from the 1998 Ram Gopal Verma crime flick Satya.
As odd as it may be, that made legendary lyricist Gulzar appear in the credits for Punya Paap, for using his lines from Satya. “It’s crazy that I didn’t even know he wrote those lyrics,” DIVINE says. Despite losing a few songs for lack of getting a sample cleared for use, the hip-hop artist swears by the strength of sampling culture in the genre. DIVINE recalls when his manager called to tell him the Satya sample was cleared, “I was jumping. It’s a song that every Bombay Nineties kid relates to. I’m just that and I wanted to use that sample. It came out very nice and people love that song the most on the album now.”
The real star track on Punya Paap, however, is “Mirchi” the Latin music-informed electronic/hip-hop banger that came from Goa-based producer-rapper Phenom aka Pinaki Rattan. Featuring British dancehall artist Stylo G as well as MC Altaf, it’s racked up over a 100 million views, the most for any DIVINE song right now. For him, the song was a way to attract more people to Indian hip-hop.
Fully in the driver’s seat, the rapper says he never even thought about creative blocks. “We came from a place and genre was never there. So hamare liye creative block jaise cheez nahi hoti hai because it was do or die for us,” he says. “We were waiting for our chance. This is our chance, there cannot be any blocks.”
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