In the late 90’s, Planet Asia patrolled the indie rap scene like a seasoned vet, despite his relative youth. “Place of Birth” was a hellified commencement, on which the gladiator-slash-scientist spit with an elder’s perspective: “Half these rappers just started rapping a couple of gold chains ago.” 13 years later, Asia’s still on the grind and still working the grown man angle – Black Belt Theatre kicks off with the heartfelt proclamation, “I do this shit to feed my kids, man.” And damned if I know a better reason to do anything.
While the lyrical dexterity that defined Asia’s earlier releases–and made his flow the perfect counterpoint to Rasco’s straight-ahead staccato on the pair’s Cali Agents records–is still traceable (“Whirlwind Patterns”), it’s on more laid back cuts (“All Mine” feat. Paul Wall, “No Apologies” feat. Raekwon) that Asia flexes his evolution. The man’s more likely to be “eatin’ off land” than off the proceeds of a Scribble Jam battle. Artists need to connect with their audience, and when that audience is largely comprised of dudes in their mid-30’s also trying to feed their kids, reflective isn’t always a bad thing.
At 20 tracks, 12 of which have guests, Black Belt Theatre could tighten up a notch or two. That’s not necessarily a knock on Asia though; he hangs with all collaborators (Kweli, Camp Lo, Ras Kass, Rasco, and Chace Infinite included). It’s just that the man is plenty entertaining on his own and perhaps shines brightest on focused solo jams like “Mach One,” a revenge tale pitting Asia against the evil “Dragon Lee” and doling out some slick vengeance for the slaying of his homie, “JoJo.”
- Jeff Artist