Asiatisch is Senegal-born and Kuwait-based artist Fatima Al Qadiri’s sonic portrayal of an imagined China, something that immediately feels like a risky foray. Her jumping-off point is a microgenre known as sinogrime, pioneered by the likes of Wiley and Kode9 in the UK, which takes vaguely Chinese sounds and adds them to grime’s ebullient form of millennial post-hip-hop, casting a gaze beyond the old superpowers that are the U.S. and Europe and toward the emerging economic giant that is China. Arguably, Al Qadiri attempts to go even further, firmly anchoring her album in Asia through its title. However, Asiatisch ends up getting no closer to the reality of China as a reality than Wiley did on “Blue Rizla.”
To be fair, as stated, it was clearly never Al Qadiri’s intention to go beyond the realms of her own mind, but one can’t help but feel that Asiatisch is a missed opportunity. From the get-go, it’s an album that misleads and confuses, even as Al Qadiri’s talents as a producer are revealed to be unquestionable. Nine of the 10 tracks on Asiatisch are tightly coiled and finely detailed, with synths, vocals and samples of occasionally hard-to-place Eastern sounds. Preceding those nine, however, is the album’s most startling track, “Shanzhai,” a cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing To Compares 2 U” apparently sung by Helen Feng in nonsensical Mandarin. (Although, not speaking the language, I’m relying on someone else’s assertion there.)
Its dreamy, retro-feeling synth backdrop and detached vocals stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the album — such as the ghostly pipes that swerve around the spectral wordless vocals, the tingling chime sounds and juddery non-beats on “Szechuan” or the hypnotic, ice-cold shuffle and gibberish, mechanical voice snippets of “Wudang.” Most of the tracks have a sort of lopsided gait, neither propulsive nor minimal but somewhere in-between. The abortive lurches are used as counterpoints to the other sounds, as opposed to building blocks for a foundation. When this is not the case, as on the moody “Shenzhen,” the pace is always somewhat sedate, as opposed to the hyperactivity of “regular” grime, as if Al Qadiri is trying to channel a sort of Eastern mysticism.
This abstract collage of faux Chinese imagery both makes and undermines Asiatisch, for the vision feels like a mixture of caricature, dream and stereotype, with very little of anything actually Chinese filtering through. Even though Al Qadiri was born in Senegal and was raised in Kuwait, Asiatisch feels very much like a Western view of China, with references to forged commodity goods, impersonal shopping malls and Hollywood films. One of the album’s better tracks, the robotic, intense “Dragon Tattoo,” features a dispassionate voice whispering, “I’ve got a dragon tattoo on my arm / and I need to cause you harm,” but the song is about authentically Asian as the samurai scenes in Kill Bill. Admittedly, Al Qadiri makes no illusions of trying to capture the reality of China, and she’s very much operating in an imaginary sphere. But in doing so, any chance to comment on the world — China and beyond — is lost. I think of British synth-pop band Japan’s masterpiece Tin Drum, which admittedly dealt with a very different vision of China, but which nonetheless managed to channel something real and emotional.
In contrast, Asiatisch is impersonal and airtight. Musically, the album is fascinating, diverse and expertly produced. But a chance was perhaps missed to deliver something with more to say.