Certain artists inspire certain kinds of listening. The psychic skulduggery and roiling energies of Tame Impala, for instance, might elicit subliminal insight, a slow and sensual severing of the body from the mind. The wordless melodic nuances of Badbadnotgood explore more corporeal terrains, where rhythmic anomalies induce trance-like, metronomic movements–a kind of disembodied, spectral hearing. I’ve spent much of the last two years meditating on the Harlem-raised rapper-vocalist Azealia Banks and all the sensational trappings that accompany her brief, boisterous career in music and fashion, the sonic schema her idiosyncratic brand of hip-hop demands. There’s an irreconcilable tension present in her music, a double-edged spectra of pop-sensibility (ranging from hardcore witch-hop to sexy electro-soul to campy world beat funk (see “Gimme a Chance”)) that’s both brazenly ballsy and undeniably sophisticated. On Broke with Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks evokes a kind of listening that’s temporal, challenging and provocative, utterly insistent upon keeping the listener stymied and envisaged, rearing upwards and onwards in perpetual anticipation for the next big drop.
Azealia Banks‘ debut full-length release, Broke with Expensive Taste, was postponed nearly 21 months following legal complications with major label Interscope (who, after investing $2 million in the artist, dropped her earlier this year but subsequently relinquished all rights to tracks which would appear on BWET). Banks effectively self-released the record last week, with distribution granted to her manager Jeff Kwatinetz’s imprint Prospect Park.
Broke with Expensive Taste is the most precise and poignant product by Azealia Banks to date, whose collective brand of music was convoluted by a string of unsystematic, sporadically released singles. The record looks beyond musical missteps like the severely underwhelming Pharrell collaboration “ATM Jam” or the hypnotic cadence and narcissistic soliloquy of “Bambi.” Instead, Banks recycles the breakout 2011 single “212” and the Fantasea mixtape standout “Luxury,” her most straightforward and effective showcase of velvety vocal work and quick-witted, mile-per-minute spoken word prowess (all synced to the starry-eyed and salacious beatwork of Machinedrum). The violently surging rhythms of “212,” in its oral tenaciousness for all things derogatory and indecent, are every bit as relevant as the day it debuted.
Album opener “Idle Delilah” embodies all the things that initially attracted me to Azealia Banks: She’s a left-field pop-rap provocateur absolutely defined by her ceaseless ferocity and unabashed weirdness. According to Twitter, she wrote the song as a fable, extrapolating upon the story of a famed slave owner in the early 20th century whose six-year-old daughter was murdered by his own slaves in an act of revenge. The following track “Gimme a Chance” employs St. Vincent collaborator Toko Yasuda, big band horn arrangements, unnecessary vinyl scratching and an unexpected meringue breakdown. Theophilus London’s feature on the “JFK” is the only of its kind credited on the album–Ariel Pink provides production on “Nude Beach A Go Go” (which also appears on his forthcoming album Pom Pom)–but otherwise Banks consolidates the spotlight on BWET.
Lead singles “BBD,” “Heavy Metal and Reflective” and “Yung Rapunxel,” whose abrasive textures provide a satisfying counterpoint to the litany of IDM productions throughout (courtesy of Lone, M.J. Cole, and Bodikka), are sandwiched strategically in the centerfold. The faux-trap-cum-Euro-house production by AraabMuzik on “Ice Princess,” is striking and strangely harmonious against Banks’ low-end, vicious flow: “My jargon fuck you on frigid/ Cool it down or get avalanched/ Igloo’d cold-cased and bodied/ And ice-cubed up in the lobby/ Bitch, white fox, peep the opulence…/Ice box the coolest confidence.”
After all the hype and hullaballoo, the release and perception of BWET could very well be deemed underwhelming. In all its apparent eccentricity, the album still feels fraught and, sometimes, flippant. Banks’ artistic limitations are defined by an inability to look past the parameters of her strangeness, a refusal to discard the very tropes and guises that cemented her role as the not-so-subversive pop-rap mogul. Hooks and verses, from track to track, blur dangerously into one another, with the artist often riffing off ideas she’s already used (see the introductory sections of “Luxury” and “Miss Camaraderie”), but this record is anything but cohesive. It’s a fantastic, fissured and ambitious piece of music, which demands a conscious unfastening of whatever inhibiting pop presets are programmed in our minds. Most importantly, though, Banks accomplished this feat on her own terms, without ever compromising herself or her music. Broke with Expensive Taste was well worth the wait.