opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN
Smile, Chinese Democracy, Detox – the pop music world has never been a stranger to the frustration of the delayed album release. New York rapper and singer Azealia Banks’ Broke With Expensive Taste could have easily earned its own pedestal in such a dubious pantheon. Since she first took music blogs, dorm rooms, and block parties by storm in 2012 with the joyously vulgar earworm “212,” Banks has become mired in so many Twitter feuds and record-label publicity flaps that the release of her debut album seemed increasingly unlikely by the month. Instead, she has now presented us with one of the most explosive and intriguing hip-hop releases of the year. We should hardly be surprised — Banks has always demonstrated a precocious talent for confounding expectations.
With its unheralded crash-landing of a debut early last week, Broke With Expensive Taste and its promotional strategy have inevitably drawn a few comparisons to the commercial blockbuster of the year, Beyoncé.Broke is the anti-Beyoncé – a long-gestating album with flagging or nearly forgotten anticipation, the surprise release as afterthought. Musically and thematically, however, Broke With Expensive Taste serves as a perfect companion album to Beyoncé. As lyrically provocative, sexually brash, and stylistically eclectic as its more pop-oriented forbear, Broke is decidedly non-commercial, reveling in sonic detours and dizzying vocal delivery that were evidently too much for the executives at Interscope. Banks’ first full-length pulls off an impressive trick — a confrontational anti-pop record that also manages to be one of the year’s most accessible and melodically pleasing LPs.
Album opener “Idle Delilah” quickly establishes the album’s musical modus operandi — throw everything at the graffitied wall and see what sticks. Banks unleashes bongo drums, monkey screams, and an ice cream truck jingle of a steel drum hook, all while alternating between maddeningly sing-song vocals and her characteristically furious and venomous flow. Elsewhere, “Ice Princess” shifts gears seamlessly between an aggressive, bass-heavy beat and a four-on-the-floor chorus that would not sound out of place on the next Rihanna LP. On “Gimme A Chance,” Banks goes bilingual as she switches from English to Spanish while the song departs from its vintage vinyl-scratching hip hop sound in favor of a delirious horn-accented salsa breakdown. Bachata, acid house, surf-rock — it all blends together in a musical tableau as bizarre and multicultural as a ride on the L train of Banks’ hometown.
The album’s sonic schizophrenia complements Banks’ lyrics perfectly. Banks explores and deconstructs two classic tropes of hip-hop and R&B femininity – the street-tough gangster and the glamorous diva — two sides of the same coin immortalized in the album’s title itself. Rather than adopt either identity, Banks presents a multi-dimensional persona who “moves sexy in Dior” on “JFK” but threatens to rip challengers’ heads off and “send [them] to Jehovah” on “Yung Rapunxel.” “I be in the mirror looking luxe and plush” from “Desperado” presents the stark antithesis to the way she looks “heavy metal and reflective” on the aggressive track named as such. The very moniker of “Yung Rapunxel” epitomizes this dichotomy — Banks posits herself as a fairy tale princess in a six-story walkup with a phonetic perversion that belies the rapper’s penchant for eschewing and transcending stereotypes. Banks is content to contradict herself; she contains multitudes.
The Ariel Pink collaboration “Nude Beach A Go Go” (you read that correctly) must be heard to be believed. If a former Harlem theater student recording a beguilingly catchy Beach Boys-aping throwback sounds out of place, then that’s all part of Banks’ design. Offering her own spin on whitewashed 1960s surf culture, Banks unleashes a scathing condemnation of white appropriation of black culture as she chants “black women attraction, all the white girls join in the action.”
Admittedly, not all tracks hit with the same force. The album sags a bit in its second act, weighed down by tracks like “BBD” and “Wallace” that submerge themselves in a quagmire of murky beats and aggressive posturing. Banks’ lyrical delivery, often remarkably nimble and quick-witted, occasionally threatens to veer wildly off the rails, only to course-correct itself in the next twelve bars. “212,” the centerpiece of the record’s A side, still remains a highlight, serving as a triumphant middle-fingered reminder of why we loved this rapper so much in the first place. The fantastic Missy Elliott-cum-Disclosure hybrid “Chasing Time” is perhaps the most conventionally poppy track here with its repeated chorus and verse structure and its club-ready synths.
While other rappers may have ceded hook-slinging responsibilities to the (very capable) likes of Rita Ora or Sia, Azealia Banks sings her own melodies, rarely surrendering the mic over Broke’s hour-long runtime save one guest spot from Theophilius London on “JFK.” Her complete dominance over the sonic space of her debut reinforces Broke With Expensive Taste as a product singularly of her vision. The album is not a coronation – it could have quite easily been a more compact twelve tracks rather than a bloated sixteen. However, its arrival is most welcome, as reflected in the vocal sample of Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg on “Desperado” — “Man, I’ve been waiting for Azealia Banks.” What Broke With Expensive Taste so forcefully reminds us is that we have all been waiting for Azealia Banks, even if we had briefly forgotten her in a haze of blogosphere backlash. Banks’ debut does not simply think outside the box — it blows the box to smithereens and steals the box’s man in the process. Bloggers and record executives, proceed with caution — no box, corporate or critical, can restrain a talent this promising and an id this formidable.