With hip-hop’s ever-changing spectrum of styles, you may be hard-pressed to find a rapper from back in the day that can still sound fresh. Ambient production is growing, as is the trend of incorporating genres from the complete opposite side of the soundscape. To have been around for 15 years and still remain at your prime is something rappers should all aspire to. In Planet Asia’s case, this aspiration is a reality. Starting back in 2000 as one-half of the rap duo Cali Agents, Asia has become a leader in the underground hip-hop community. With the release of Black Belt Theatre — his first retail album in four years — the San Francisco artist’s prime production value and skillfully executed rhymes prove that age really is just a number.
Although Asia has been a producer for various artists over the years, this album marks his return as a solo MC. Asia described his path toward the album as a journey to his roots. “I was going towards a more producer role in terms of records for a while,” said Asia. “But this album is more like your typical Planet Asia record like the Jewelry Box Sessions.”
By going back to the basics and strengthening them, Asia hopes to bring forth a record that will not only please new fans, but serve as a thank you for fans who have been with him from the start. “I’ve really made this album for the people that have been listening to Planet Asia my whole career, so they finally get a quality album with good features, good production.”
Asia preaches the truth here. As a self-proclaimed “beat fanatic,” the production quality is the main highlight of Black Belt Theatre. Producers like Khrysis, Dirty Diggs and Soulprofessa all leave their own distinct mark on the album with Asia leading the overall direction of the sound. The features also offer a variety of styles, ranging from known acts like Talib Kweli to local legends like Mistah F.A.B. and The Jacka. “All my features were with people whose music I love,” said Asia. “I haven’t done any songs with a lot of these dudes before, and I was wondering what kind of sound we could get when we put our styles together.”
Whether it’s the rhymes strong enough to chop wood on “Lost and Found,” or the way that Raekwon’s calm collected approach contrasts with Asia on “No Apologies,” the record’s diverse beats and lyrics strike hard with violent precision on each of the album’s 18 tracks.
One of the biggest concepts of this album is growth. As an MC with 15 years in the game, Asia has been slowly perfecting a style that has yet to become dull or tired. Asia described this record as a comeback album, but jokingly interjected, “But don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.” He mentioned that he was more comfortable on this album, especially in terms of his rhymes. Specifically, how a carefully executed lyric can hold stronger than a rapid-fire send-off. “I remember when I would try to cram as many words as possible, and run out of breath just trying to rap,” said Asia. “ If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that less is more.”
That ideology is apparent especially in tracks like “Big Fish,” a song where Asia described seeing himself “sitting in a little boat on a river, thinking deep.” The melodic string section combined with the thumping bass mix together in an aquatic, trance-like groove. Asia delved further into the track, saying that it describes how he feels about being in the game. “I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond, then a regular-ass fish in a big-ass ocean. I never intended on being the torch-holder for the underground, I just wanted to make good music.”
Other tracks aren’t quite as philosophical. Some like “Fuck Rappers” — or the “torture song,” as Asia referred to it in the interview — showcase the quality of hip-hop today as seen by the veteran artist. While the tracks that express thoughtful musings or views on the world are definitely worth a listen, it’s the songs with unconventional themes whose sole purpose is to display heavy beats and lyrical mastery that stand out on the album. “Bruce Lee” in particular exemplifies this idea, as the track blends a kung-fu-esque horns section with some old-fashioned bass and snare that captures a unique fusion of tones that sound dope even with the comical martial arts cries layered on.
Asia also described working with Rasco and Chace Infinite on the track and how the dichotomy of their voices complement each other. “One (voice) is real deep, and the other is more raspy with a jazzy feel,” said Asia. “I would not have wanted that track to come out any other way.”
Black Belt Theatre serves as a testament of how Asia has been able to preserve and strengthen both his flow and beats over the years. The album never sounds stale, nor does it feel forced as a rapper trying to hang on to his last few minutes of fame. Asia is living proof that you don’t need a major label or some glitzy shtick to affirm your place in the hip-hop scene. “A lot of hip-hop dudes feel that if some dude is on TV every day, then they’re not a real MC. That’s bullshit,” Asia said. “If it’s good music, then it’s good music, and that’s what I feel Black Belt Theatre is representing. Good music can come from anywhere.”
Ian Birnam is the lead music critic.