- "I've never been to China. I only know what the West is telling me about China," Fatima Al Qadiri recently told Pitchfork while discussing her debut album. That cultural disconnect is the central tenet of Asiatisch, a record that takes the listener on a journey through "Imagined China"—the country as portrayed in Western media. Asiatisch aims to expand on sinogrime, a loose thread of grime where artists who knew very little about China clumsily appropriated Eastern scales and instrumentation. For Al Qadiri, that means taking her streamlined beats and embellishing them with an array of mallet percussion, MIDI string instruments and self-consciously Asian-sounding melodies. If that sounds like cultural appropriation, well, that's kind of the point. The bigger question is whether the music itself holds up.
The record begins with a haunting cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U" called "Shanzhai," the Chinese term for pirated goods. The lyrics are written in nonsense Mandarin, rendering what sounds like a heartfelt performance from Helen Fung ultimately meaningless. But even with a haughty introduction, Asiatisch settles into a zone that sounds a whole lot like Al Qadiri's past EPs, Desert Strike and Genre Specific Xperience. Those (excellent) 12-inches sounded like grime with its innards scooped out. Here, Al Qadiri adds an exotic topcoat to those ominous basslines and creeping synths, lending the whole thing a sinister and grandiose undertone.
Each track on Asiatisch corresponds to a different region or idea. The disembodied vocals and fluid synths on "Wudang" hint at the mythology of the historically spiritual mountain range. The plasticky pomp of "Forbidden City" reconciles its namesake's imperial history with its current status as a glitzy tourist destination. "Shanghai Freeway" uses a swift mallet melody to convey the vastness of China's open roads. Most striking of all is "Shenzhen," which portrays one of China's fastest-growing cities. Once a tiny village, Shenzhen now has a reputation for abundant prosperity living next to seedy crime—the same economic imbalance that inspired grime in London in the first place. As such, "Shenzhen" is also the most straightforward UK-style tune on the record, and it proves that Al Qadiri can nail a club cut when she wants to.
Those are all killer tracks even when you remove the context, which makes the Chinese flourishes feel gimmicky. The problem with Asiatisch is that it doesn't go much deeper than merely pointing out that this unrealistic vision of China exists. There's no greater commentary or anything useful to take away from it, and at some level it could be considered offensive, dressing up surface-level appropriation as something smarter. Asiatisch sounds better when heard as an experimental grime album and left at that. You certainly don't need to know anything about China to enjoy it. And maybe that's the key: the LP positions Al Qadiri as just one in a long line of grime producers finding inspiration in the same problematic, yet awe-inspiring, vision of The East.
01. Shanzhai (For Shanzhai Biennial) feat. Helen Feng
04. Loading Bejing
05. Hainan Island
07. Dragon Tattoo
08. Forbidden City
09. Shanghai Freeway
10. Jade Stars