The artistic work of the social dynamics of crack cocaine, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, The Wire, often get labeled “cinematic,” by high-art critics who live far away from where the shit actually goes down at. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Planet Asia named his Corner Boy opus Crackbelt Theatre. So if it feels like a movie you’ve seen before, it’s because you have—there’s nothing thematic here that wasn’t covered done better by Mobb Deep a decade ago. Still remakes are in, and with the right storyteller, the same old tale can be fresh. Thus, Crackbelt Theatre can be considered a success, as Planet Asia’s talents as a emcee suffice, particularly for fans of underground movements past and present.
Like many west coast rappers not off Death Row, Planet Asia’s struggled to survive in a game frequently dominated by regions more south and east than his hometown of Fresno, California. He’s made enough noise over the years to solicit the help of producers like Madlib, giving him some sonic improvement over previous efforts. “Gold Chain Medallions” exemplifies the best of the production. Its simple soul loops with standard bass underneath, recalling an era when the focus was on what the rapper had to say as opposed to more “orchestral” productions of today. Lyrical digestion comes first.
There’s plenty to digest. Planet Asia shows off his many styles throughout the album’s 14 tracks, while consistently delivering multi-syllabic stanzas that require multiple listens. His flows ooze dexterity. On “Mixtape Madness,” he takes a frenetic pace over a rousing mashup up of horns and organs, spitting out tongue twisting syllables “with the aura of King Tut.” He gives off a reserved cool of a regional overlord as he celebrates his success on the vibrant “Black Frost (Retro Mackin),” carrying an acappella section with ease. While most of the topical focus is on the crack trade and its various characters, he shows additional depth by focusing on personal struggles and relationships on “Inspiration.”
Missteps do occur. The strange crack whore opus “Pussy Pedestal” lacks the humor or seductive beat to overcome Planet Asia’s crassness. Part of the problem is the redundancy of the material—it’s impossible to sound consistently fresh when you’re boxed in to making Tony Montana references. Similar missteps occur behind the boards. Planet Asia’s zinger on “Last Air Benders” (“whoever making your beats needs to dig in the crates,) unfortunately applies to this project. The faux Dipset-esque choral loops of “Be Careful,” or the forced embellished samples on opener “Air Balloon” borrow too much from albums past. A fresher production set would push this album to greater heights.
The project’s strengths win out due to two truths. First, crack rap is timeless. As long as the U.S. allows the drug trade to dominate inner cities, it will stay relevant topic in Hip-Hop, the soundtrack of urban America. And second, Planet Asia’s a beast behind the mic. His mix of loquacious rhymes, gruff vocals and diverse flows make Crackbelt Theatre well worth your time.