Celebrating the invisible accomplishments of underdiscussed artists is perhaps the saddest and sweetest pleasure of the music lover. Latinists will feel me on this point but Hellenists will not. Love? Yes, I have nothing but love for the Hellenists. But my heart belongs to Ennius, and to Calvus, and to those writers of whom only a few lines survive.
It will take longer than two thousand years for the half-known poets of today to find the oblivion which their art initially resists but eventually seeks out with a ghastly and beautiful hunger. Barring nuclear holocaust or some unforeseen Taliban coup in the western countries, digital media will preserve practically every text now extant indefinitely. An artist can longer hope that his life's work will just up and disappear. Most things stay in print, and all things are available for trade in one sense or another. That's all right about all that, though. The sheer number of competing voices has opened up new vistas for the brave frontier of anonymity. If everything remains in print, and the amount of available print inches toward something resembling infinity, then doesn't a low profile begin to resemble interment in some hard-to-locate mausoleum?
I think it does. And I offer praises to the churning stomach of history for having worked things out this way. Warhol's fifteen minutes erase those whom they momentarily illuminate. The fact is what undoes itself, and it ends up doing so by its very nature. This wouldn't be a big deal if our whole culture didn't now turn on fame, but it does, regardless of what anyone may have to say about it. We know what we like, and it's attention. That's cool; whatever. In the interplay, then, between the viral spread of the need for one's actions to be seen as work and the desire of the work for total isolation, lies an interesting failure: the failure of the flame to extinguish itself. Perhaps not failure but inability.
Every record in the collection has its own half-life undead glory to it when you look at things in these terms, and they all have their own stories about how they tried and failed. But in real time it's only the ones that disappear quickly who've got the gift of communication, not just the talent but the real knack. Whole warehouses full of videotapes bear witness to expression that will never, ever complete the circuit whose theoretical existence was the only reason the damn things got pressed up in the first place; but it's the rare item that inspires simultaneous cries of "Why didn't anybody ever hear of this?" and "It's too late! It's too late! It's too late!"
On this last bit of business we have the major label system to thank for taking the long view. I am being sarcastic, of course, but only somewhat: I really do wish that Universal or Sony or whoever hadn't made such a mess of Planet Asia's entry into the limelight, because they fumbled the ball so badly that there isn't actually going to be any limelight, even though he deserves it. His new album, the endlessly-awaited The Grand Opening, sets Asia's Nas-on-chamomile-and-ephedrine skills against several different backgrounds, aiming scattershot at a marketplace about which somebody involved clearly knows something, but not quite enough. Planet Asia must eventually take the blame (if you're weirded out by dirty south sounds popping up on a deep-Cali album) or the credit (if such hodgepodge production punches your buttons, as it does mine), but one gets the idea that somewhere along the line word came from upstairs that something resembling what's currently charting would be a real good idea. The posited response to this imagined demand is "16 Bars of Death," whose guitar sounds like Linkin Park ca. 2001, which is to say "pretty awesome in a Stones Throw-school rap context." After that, it's a battle between Asia's instincts, which are to keep it underground, and the label's interests, which is to sell records.
And this is where The Grand Opening finds itself staring its own doom directly in the face, in real time, almost. Utterly vital, smooth, the-waves-have-subsided angry (in a Curtis Mayfieldesque minor key, a good octave lower: "It don't matter if it's right or wrong, I'm'a get my hustle on/you actin' like it's somethin' wrong/I'm just tryin' to put my peoples on": it'll give you the chills), lilting, grooving, Ghostface-on-10 guest verse snapping like a live wire on a track called "Real Niggaz," heavy bounce in a Bay Area style if you can remember when Bay Area didn't necessarily mean all-the-way underground, total grit in a closer-to-SoCal way slithering through elsewhere (this courtesy of Walt Liquor, largely, a longtime P.A. collaborator), the whole thing a magnificent mess. The "mess" aspect turns off a lot of reviewers, who are probably right to credit it to the way Planet Asia's contract passed through a few hands after it became clear that his style wasn't the way the market was moving. Thus we get a song which (rather charmingly, really) references an after-party, though the younger Planet Asia would have had to have taken a raincheck on any and all afterparties because he'd've had to meet some friends behind a junkyard in Fresno and it wouldn't have been any of your fuckin' business, dude. Me, though, I hear the mess, and the conflict, and the things that are out of place, and the artistry stretching to make itself fit into a short-term vision with which it really isn't concerned even if its owner is, and I get the kinda dizzy that I really like. I think of John Cale albums, and Nick Drake's Bryter Later which I understand some people still like to claim (falsely, and willfully falsely at that) is somehow not representative of Drake's vision. I think of Chaucer, too, actually, and of his scribe, Adam.
Sooner or later I'll have a grand-unification theory of all this and I'll be able to reference the whole shebang in a few quick & forgettable phrases. For now, though, what I can say is that Planet Asia's The Grand Opening is a terrific album whose many delays eventually submerged it within themselves, so that its release was almost an afterthought, and its content - such content! - became a discussion about itself. That Planet Asia is one of the few M.C.'s interested in "realness" and similar tropes only makes the whole thing richer. It may not, unfortunately, make Planet Asia himself richer, which is a pity; he deserves money and praise and fame, if that's what he wants. But his album is already getting what it wants without even having to wait for the end of the world.
At least somebody's happy!
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