There’s something to be said about knowing your strengths and playing to them. Venerable west coast emcee Planet Asia does just that on his thoroughly entertaining album Black Belt Theatre. Multisyllabic, lyrical kung-fu is the order of the day on Asia’s 20 track release. While there is some topicality, and a few departures from the sample-heavy production that permeates much of the album, Black Belt Theatre isn’t much more than a platform for one of the more underrated lyricists in the game to showcase his wares. The result is satisfying and familiar, but far from game-changing.
The proceedings start in frantic fashion with the Khrysis-produced “Lost And Found.” Free-form couplets about everything from what inspires him to black history to his reputation in his hometown are punctuated by soulful vocal samples and dynamic drum programming. Talib Kweli spots his west coast brethren and handles some of the heavy lifting on the loose lyrical exercise that is “Grown Folks Talkin’.” One of the more unexpected of the many (22!) guest appearances, is Paul Wall’s turn on “All Mine.” The ode to catching up to folks who don’t pay their debts on time, with it’s synthy, flute-laden, track ,is a welcome change of pace and intensity early in the album, though the sung hook is pretty saccharine and should probably still be on the cutting room floor.
While most of the guest appearances offer strong performances, especially the aforementioned Kweli, Raekwon on “No Apologies,” and Willie The Kid and Fashawn on “Fuck Rappers,” it gets a bit annoying after a while to hear the star of the show for only one or two verses for most songs on the album. It’s no surprise that two of the best songs are featureless. “Golden State,” with its blaxploitation car chase intensity, is a clear standout. On the opposite end of the spectrum, King Medallions slows things down on his lyrical mission statement, “Big Fish” to great effect.
Aside from overdosing on guest appearances, Black Belt Theatre could have also been edited into a more potent package by trimming a few songs overall. Asia’s gruff voice and gritty choices in production can be a bit grating after 15 tracks. In addition, so much of the album devoted is to ear-pleasing, but unfocused, raps about rapping, that it doesn’t really stay with you after you take the headphones off. Even with its flaws, Black Belt Theatre will satiate the many listeners’ appetites that are hungry for lyrical warfare. Planet Asia is a long time general of this movement, and proves that he hasn’t lost any firepower during his latest tour of duty.
Label: Green Streets Ent| Producers: Khrysis, Oh No, DirtyDiggs, Twiz The Beat Pro, Religion, Brisk Oner, Soul Professa