Azealia Banks Goes Back to the Future on ‘1991’ (EP Review)

It’s safe to say that 20-year-old Harlem rising rapper Azealia Banks is no longer “One to Watch.” By now, everyone’s already watching.

Back in late 2011, the LaGuardia High School alum (the superstar factory that’s brought us Nicki Minaj and Wynter Gordon, among others) released her unbelievably ferocious burst of energy, “212.” Rapping over a sample of Lazy Jay‘s “Float My Boat,” Banks’ infectious hooks and feisty, filthy-mouthed (yet somehow endearing?) rhymes are an instant win: “I’m fucking with you, Cutie Q/What’s your dick like homie, what are you into?” she spits above the frantic electro pulse. And then there’s that line: “I guess that cunt getting eaten!” Oh, and that other line: “I’mma ruin you, cunt!” (Or “kunt,” as she spells it on Twitter–that is, when she’s not giggling about Pokemon, warring with T.I. and Lil Kim or Instagramming insanely gorgeous shots snapped by fashion legend Rankin.)

The song exploded within just a few weeks and, along with the release of the co-penned Scissor Sisters‘ “Shady Love” (on which she appears) and a thoroughly incredible Coachella set, Banks suddenly found herself atop several “Most Anticipated” lists, including a spot on the BBC’s much coveted Sound of 2012 list.

Having now signed to Interscope/Polydor, Banks brings us the long awaited 1991 EP–a 4-track taste test released in advance of Banks’ upcoming mixtape due out in July, Fantastic. And though the title is a nod to the year Banks was born, it’s also a reference to the kinds of beats banging throughout.

“Liquorice” for example, which was also released in late 2011, sees Banks time-traveling back to Inner City territory, rapping above the same kinds of early ’90’s House beats that were bumping inside the clubs the year she was born. (Actually, it’s built around Lone‘s 2010 “Pineapple Crush.”) “I make hits, motherfucker/Do you jiggle ya dick when ya bitch pop singing on the liquorice hit?” she taunts on the brash, in-your-face temptation.

“1991” and “Van Vogue”–the two new cuts from the EP, which were produced by Machinedrum–similarly bounce along early ’90’s House melodies and ballroom-ready, strut-friendly grooves. “Came in the game with a beat and a belt/Never for the fame, my feet on the ground,” Banks raps on the EP’s title track.

With a background in Drama, it’s no surprise that–like Nicki Minaj–she’s prone to showing off her versatility, shifting between wild yelps, too cool for school spittin’, and even some R&B crooning. “NY rose me, Most High chose me,” Banks dreamily sings above the minor keys of the EP’s title track. (As it turns out, she’s got a pretty good singing voice.)

But her music lacks the squeaky pop sheen of Minaj, bouncing along extended beats and key changes that offer her more room to spit than a basic verse-chorus, verse-chorus build. Her eyebrow-raising lyrics, too, are bound to inspire a comparison or two: Boastful, aggressively sexual and always frank, Banks’ cocky flow (with so, so, so many references to her vagina!) recalls Lil Kim, as well as shades of Missy Elliot and Eve. But between the ever-shifting House rhythms and her varied style of rapping, Banks brings a unique style that’s less easily categorized, a la M.I.A. or Santigold.

1991 is refreshingly innovative, full of danceable beats, slick hooks and a mile-a-minute flow. It’s all the reason why Banks has been pegged as a hotly-tipped artist for months now–and why that hype’s more than deserved.

Whether or not she’ll prove herself with her upcoming debut in Fall, Broke with Expensive Taste (which will feature production by several pop titans, including Paul Epworth and Diplo)? That’s the real challenge. I look forward to watching her win.

1991 EP was released on May 29. (iTunes)

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