Scathing electric guitars signal the beginning of “16 Bars or Death,” the first track from Planet Asia’s debut solo full-length, The Grand Opening. The impassioned self-produced ode to rapdom beckons comparisons to Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” or the Illmatic one’s 2001 gem “One Mic” in its avowed devotion to the art of rhyming and its abrasive attack on all half-stepping emcees. Enthusiastic devotion to emceeing not withstanding, Planet Asia’s inability to vary his flow or select production suited to his “weededed” voice — to quote Cali rhymeslayers the Loot Pack — is this track’s and album’s downfall. The perpetually buzzing Planet Asia may have temporarily lost his sting.
The Fresno native and Bay Area transplant flaunts a remarkable resume. He’s collaborated with everyone from Soundscan-friendly rock group Linkin Park to the underground hip-hop community’s most recent offering to the commercial hip-hop world, Talib Kweli. “Don’t Let Up” is Planet Asia and Kweli’s absolutely spine-tingling must-have for any respectable crate digger’s record collection. Asia made a lasting mark on the national hip-hop scene with the release of the underground classic How the West Was One with mentor, friend and business partner Rasco to critical acclaim in 2001. Interscope Records quickly scooped Planet Asia up and out of his subterranean stomping grounds. But as Q-Tip pointed out thirteen years ago, “record company people are shady,” and despite recording songs with heavy hitters like Hi Tek, Kanye West, the Roots, Ghostface Killah and Dr. Dre’s camp, Planet Asia’s 2001 solo album, the follow-up to his 2000 EP The Last Stand, was shelved.
Although released on the independent Avatar records, The Grand Opening seethes with major label-ness. The directionless album follows the overused recipe for hip-hop success by including one song for the ladies, “Hypnotize”; a few club joints, “It’s All Big” and “Light Green”; a grimy street anthem, “Paper Up”; and “a pour out a little liquor” joint, “As Long as I’m Alive.”
Martin Luther of recent Roots fame blesses the diamond in the rough song “Pure Coke.” He coos in a seductive falsetto “uncut like real ‘dro” throughout the chorus, an apt description of the Darren Henson- and Ivan Barias-conceived track. The experience Philly natives Henson and Barias have producing for Floetry and Musiq shows — “Pure Coke” is easily the strongest cut on the album.
A griot at heart, Planet Asia is at his best when steeped in the specifics of his experience as a Fresno hip-hop head frantically trying to escape the clutches of the inner city. Asia draws on that experience in the Evidence-produced “Right or Wrong” transporting the listener to ’80s Fresno, when there were “park shoot-outs, dice games and beat boxing,” not to mention “$100 double up … the street option.” Asia not only paints a story of urban blight, but also his own personal development amidst the all-too-common drama, confessing: “When rapping was an art I had a flat top with a part/ But now I rock a Kundalini spiral to the top.”
Sparse keys and annoying high-hats mark the end of Planet Asia’s 57-minute musical sketch. In “As Long As I’m Alive,” Asia’s tribute to fallen street soldiers and lost loved ones, he professes “to keep it moving on” for “all his homies lost in the storm.” He does the memory of his homies a disservice by diverging from the innovative track record of his pre-Interscope days. Still overcome with the prospect of widespread commercial success that his brief major-label deal dangled before his bleedy eyes, Asia conforms to the norm on The Grand Opening. Mired in self-inflicted creative and lyrical stasis, Asia fails to “keep it moving” and falls short of his fan’s expectations by blundering and ironically half-stepping through his not too grand opening.