Review: Azealia Banks – Fantasea

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Azealia Banks
out on 7.11
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While a large cohort of the hip-hop community still bemoans the melding of dance and rap, I’d say its clear at this point that, when certain things go right, the relationship works remarkably well.  What has to go right?  First and most importantly, the MC in question has to have good taste.  Grime and Trap, two rap genres deeply rooted in electronic music, are at their best when the artists surround themselves with forward thinking beats.  Similarly, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music was as massive as it was because Mike recognized that El-P is doing something different, and often more interesting, than your average producer.  Meanwhile, folks like Lil Wayne and his affiliates couldn’t pick a dance beat to save their lives and thus have no business dabbling in the genre.  A second deciding factor is the lyrical style of the MC.  In general, the more explosive and grimy the style, the better it is going to sound over fierce synths and angular rhythms.  O.C is an exemplary rapper but his rhymes wouldn’t exactly shine over an AraabMuzik beat.

Given these criteria, I am not surprised that Azealia Banks’ newest release, Fantasea, is predominantly excellent.  Banks demonstrated her verbal dexterity and ear for a beat on 1991, so the question became whether she could sustain that energy over the course of a longer release.  Fantasea feels a little overstuffed but it is persistently engaging, and, at its best, it sports some of this years most progressive rap music.  Indeed, the production list itself is a testament to that.  The mixtape has beats from Ikonika, O/W/W/W/L/S, Machinedrum, Diplo, Drums of Death, Hudson Mohawke, AraabMuzik, and Lunice.  It used to be unthinkable that an up and coming hip-hop artist would relocate from Harlem to Montreal, which Banks recently did, but given the crowd she runs with it makes perfect sense.  The French Canadian city has been a hot bed for inventive dance music, churning out artists like Lunice, Jacques Greene, Sinjin Hawke, and LOL Boys with quiet efficiency.  Banks has immersed herself in that community and made friends with some fantastic young producers.  They all bring their distinctive style to Fantasea, resulting in a mixtape that is spastic, eclectic and often enthralling.

The tape opens with “Out of Space,” a somewhat awkward Prodigy adaptation that immediately draws attention to Banks’ diverse flow.  She notes “I’ll take your brain on a parallel universe trip/ I’m the only, no parallel bitch.”  Her sharp delivery and ever-shifting cadence makes for some excellent bars throughout Fantasea.  And these lines are even more enjoyable when paired with a fierce beat.  Ikonika, a classic purveyor of deep dubstep, weaves grungy bass and snapping snares into a spaced out synth melody on “Neptune.”  While that track is a good primer for what’s to come, “Atlantis” is where things really start to get deep.  A massive, gyrating bass line drops 30 seconds in and one starts to feel the distinct energy that comes from what many would call a “filthy” dance tune.  You feel it in your chest.  The head starts sway (whereas it will snap with a boom-bap beat).  It’s an effect that is unique to the dance genre and it is one that a number of tracks achieve throughout Fantasea.

The eponymous track pairs Banks with Machinedrum, whose rapid-fire productions (as perfected on the fantastic Room (s) LP) are the rhythmic equivalent of Banks’ flow.  The tune is a sonic onslaught that seems overdone the first time through, but makes perfect sense after the third.  On the flipside of ornate tracks like “Fantasea” are the more sparse bass explorations, such as “Fierce” and “Runnin.”  The former is perhaps the best track on the album.  Drums of Death’s beat is subtly fantastic; strange, carefully chosen sounds slowly intertwine with one another, culminating in a deranged garage beat that perfectly compliments Banks’ flow.  A flow that is not always always intelligible or poignant but which nonetheless is dripping with personality and potential.

True to its mixtape nature, Fantasea is not extremely consistent.  Tracks like “Jumanji,” “Nathan,” and “Fuck Up The Fun,” while arguably the most commercially viable tracks, aren’t as gripping as the highest points of the tape.  But it seems that consistency wasn’t necessarily what Azealia was going for with this project.  She has said that she simply wanted to throw some ideas together and make the best songs she could.  Save the consistency for Broke With Expensive Taste, her proper debut in the fall.  In that sense, she accomplished what she set out to do and, in the process, silenced anyone who said that “212” would be her only good tune. [B+]

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