I think the biggest mistake I made last year was sleeping on The Easy Truth, by Apollo Brown and Skyzoo. That album ended up being one of my favorites of 2016. Seeing a couple of months ago that Apollo Brown was teaming up with another rapper, this time being Planet Asia of Cali Agents, for an album called Anchovies (released through Mello Music Group) I made sure not to repeat that mistake.
Apollo Brown has been one of my favorites for a while. He is one of the most reliably dope producers I can think of; while generally not the most unique beatsmith in his technique, style and range, the end product is guaranteed to be soulful and immersive. His beats tell stories, even without vocals. Usually when a rapper and producer make a collaboration album, it tends to sound like the rapper’s vision with that sole producer supplying beats. Yet, the exact opposite is generally true with Apollo Brown. It’s clear that these albums are his show, and on each, he gets the rapper to come with his A-game. Planet Asia, on the other hand, is someone who I am new to. In order to get familiar before listening to this album, I listened to his other MMG release: a collaboration with producer Gensu Dean called Abrasions (which, for a quick one-line review, was quite a solid album with some filler). Based off that album, he seemed to be a talented and straightforward emcee – no frills. Just hardcore hip hop, pulled off effectively. Perfect for what Apollo was going for on this.
Speaking of which, the musical style on this album is very different from what I think most would imagine at first glance when seeing the names Apollo Brown and Planet Asia together. I think the expected product would be something along the lines of Dice Game or Trophies. They must have been aware of this going in, and decided to go for the unexpected. Rather than his typical hard-hitting drums and cinematic soul loops that would theoretically sound great behind Asia’s booming voice, Apollo Brown’s production on this is very stripped down. The drums are intentionally less prominent in the mixes, with snares often completely absent, and dirty, dusty pianos generally taking the forefront on the production side of this. It was a bit of a risk that very much paid off.
Apollo Brown and Planet Asia said that Anchovies would be an acquired taste, and to a certain extent they are right. The album sounds like it belongs to a branch of hip hop occupied by artists like Roc Marciano and Ka. However, I feel as though Anchovies is far more accessible than an album such as Honor Killed The Samurai or even Rosebudd’s Revenge. Where emcees like that are lyrically more esoteric as far as their vocabulary and references, Planet Asia’s lyricism is rooted in more colloquial language, with more of an emphasis placed on witty bars rather than abstract stories and wordplay. In addition, he raps with a more standard delivery and rhythmic flow while Ka and Marci are typically more hushed and sound almost like spoken word. Anchovies draws a great deal from the style that they use, but remains grounded in more traditional hip hop – it ends up sounding like a less cloudy and hazy version of what Conway might do. In having this sort of style, the album ends up being what I consider to be a great place to start for listeners who are trying to dip their toes into that particular facet of hip hop.
“Dirty” is an adjective that was used in a lot of the promo for Anchovies, and it really is probably the most apt description there is. The album sounds like the soundtrack to slouching against a wall smoking a cigarette in an empty alleyway behind a bar at 2 A.M. Asia’s voice and his generally somber delivery gives a feeling of cynical (and at times, emotional) reflection. This album arguably sounds like a spiritual successor to Dice Game (which, incidentally, Planet Asia was featured on)…it’s almost like this highlights what it’s like after the game when everyone’s dispersed and you’re left by yourself. It’s fitting, then, that Guilty Simpson shows up on “Nine Steamin,’” a song that is kind of reminiscent to that album.
Some songs, such as “The Aura,” “Duffles,” and “Deep in the Casket” have a bit of a jazzy, noir film kind of vibe to them, where you could imagine them behind black and white scenery. The majority of the album, however, is a little more soulful and reflective. Songs like “Speak Volumes,” “Diamonds,” and “Tiger Bone” sound sort of like what RZA would have made during the Wu-Tang Forever era with the soul samples, but far more minimal. The minimalism on this album is definitely its defining trait, and it’s pulled off wonderfully. Apollo did a great job at making sure that no matter how bare-bones the music was, it still felt full and warm to listen to.
If there is one thing that I can say I am disappointed by, it is the fact that after you get acclimated to the style of music being made here, the songs become a little predictable. If you, like me, listened to each of the singles before the album dropped, then there are likely few surprises offered to you. Apollo Brown keeps it consistent with his production, and Planet Asia does what he does lyrically and vocally. That’s not to say that it gets repetitive or the music is nonessential, and there are a few tracks that do break that mold and add a bit of depth, namely “Pain,” “Get Back,” and “You Love Me”. It’s just that the listener can pretty accurately guess what will happen on each track once they’ve heard a few. The two of them have enough talent, though, that while the predictability may hold Anchovies back as a whole from reaching its full potential, the quality of the actual music present is not diminished by any means.
On Apollo Brown’s albums, I often find more enjoyment in the beats than the raps. His production is captivating almost 100% of the time, making it’s easy for a rapper to just become a voice that compliments it well but ultimately gets tuned out. Even if the production is great, if there are emcees involved, I personally can’t call an album better than just “pretty good” if they don’t grab my interest. Sure, you can be a good rapper, but if you just serve to fill in the blanks on an impressive beat tape you’re not offering enough for the listener, or at least one like myself. With that being said, Planet Asia is not one of those emcees. He’s got witty lyrics, a distinctive delivery, and most importantly, a commanding presence and charisma. If anything, this album might be the first time I felt that it wasn’t overwhelmingly directed by Apollo. Asia felt like he had much more of a leading role, as opposed to the supporting role that the emcees generally take. Perhaps it was due in part to how minimal the beats were, but Asia’s vocal presence and clever lyricism made his mark on the album in ways that a lot of emcees don’t get to over Apollo Brown’s production.
Overall, I found Anchovies to be a great album. It is definitely one of the best efforts that I’ve personally heard this year. I appreciate and very much enjoy the sound that these guys decided to try out. Despite my criticism of the music getting predictable in the context of the album, there is no filler at all. This is an album you can’t resist but listen to the full way through. It sounded natural, and not pretentious and over-ambitious, which would have been easy given the style. My favorite tracks are probably “Diamonds,” “Dalai Lama Slang,” “Pain,” and “Get Back”. Obviously I will have to sit with it for a little longer, but as it stands right now, this is one of my favorite Apollo Brown albums; I’m not deep enough into Planet Asia’s catalog to speak on it from his side, but I’m certainly going to remedy that. I recommend this album to anyone who likes hip hop in any capacity, because it may offer a glimpse into a style that not as many people are exposed to, while not being a challenging listen.