Album Review

‘Broke With Expensive Taste’: Azealia Banks Puts Her Money Where Her Mouth Is (Album Review)

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There was a time — the past two years, to be exact — that Broke With Expensive Taste existed merely as a punchline.

But, in a testament to the true bizarreness of 2014, a time when Meghan Trainor, Iggy Azalea and Taylor Swift now rule the airwaves, Azealia Banks suddenly decided to drop her eternally delayed debut LP with an unceremonious, Beyoncé-like thud onto iTunes. No promo, no hints…just a collection of songs that should have hit our iPhones about two summers ago.

Banks’ debut didn’t start off as a joke, though: In fact, she was largely hailed as the most exciting thing to happen to female rap since Nicki Minaj after bursting onto the scene with her feisty, spitfire blog smash “212.” It’s a wildly explosive and electric track to this day: She roars, sneers and sasses — ’twas love at first “cunt getting eaten.

With each release since, from the 1991 EP to the Fantasea mixtape, she quickly forged a unique sound, supplying mile-a-minute rhymes across early ’90’s club beats — a sound that wouldn’t even fully cross into the mainstream until dance acts from across the pond like Disclosure and AlunaGeorge came into the picture last year. There’s a definitive queer quality to her music as well, from the vogue-ready club beats to her sample of Zebra Katz‘ “Ima Read” on Fantasea to her Mermaid Ball in New York City, the openly bisexual rapper often side-steps traditional hetero hip-hop and throws snaps to the kids.

But, between her label deal and her artist relationships, Azealia slowly went from being a “One To Watch” buzzworthy act to a full-time Twitter troll. She remained unapologetic when it came to burning bridges new and old, as evidenced by her impressive list of nasty Twitter beefs — from her “faggot”-filled Perez Hilton rant to Rita Ora to T.I. to Lily Allen to…well, everyone. It wasn’t cute, basically. But then, it was also just Twitter. And, like her bio read for years (it’s one of my favorite Twitter bios, actually): “Twitter is not real, and neither is your opinion of me.”

That being said, there wasn’t too much of her art out in the world to have a very strong opinion — until last week.

From the get-go, Banks’ debut giddily pulses and skips along atop tight, shuffling beats and left-leaning textures. There’s a refreshing gutsiness to her sound, from the licks of electric guitar (and, later on, tropical vibez) of “Idle Delilah” to the guttural screams of “Yung Rapunxel” to the playful absurdity of the Ariel Pink-sampling “Nude Beach A-Go-Go, to “Gimme A Chance,” an Enon-sampling rags-to-riches anthem that bursts into a horn-filled Spanish serenade two-thirds in, during which she starts crooning en español. (For what it’s worth, she’s got a great singing voice.)

That’s just who Azealia is — she’s got musical ADD, or at least an appreciation for dozens of genres, which she happily demonstrates throughout.

That being said, she largely maintains the winning, ’90’s House-leaning sound of the 1991 EP. Her luscious “Chasing Time” for instance, which is now being pushed out as the first “official” single post-album drop, expands on that sound, as she serves us her best dance floor diva impression yet while toeing the line between hip-hop and club bop. In all reality, it’s possibly her best shot at a mainstream pop hit given the current climate — if that’s even the goal, anyway.

Her #unapologeticmouth is also cocky as ever, and often hilarious: “Bitch you know that ni**a in the Sugar-Pop lotto/He was on her Twitter, but he never got followed,” she taunts on the Yung Skeeter cut, “Wallace.” She hasn’t quite let some of those beefs go, either — which is either petty or just plain delicious. The slick, Boddika-produced “JFK” is inspired by a certain female pop star who she accuses of swiping her style. “I am Miss Icon and I swore, I saw a shade of green on ya and I took time to teach ya, taught an allure/A la-da-day you wasn’t before,” she sings before Theophilus London supplies his own fiery verse. Rah-rah, ooh-ma-gah! That’s tea.

To Azealia’s credit, many of the songs she’s released since “212” make more sense in context on her album — though nothing is actually better than “212,” either. Still, the tenseness of “Heavy Metal And Reflective,” tight trap of “BBD” as well as her hellish 2013 cut “Yung Rapunxel” add a nice variation to those club beats. (The synth-filled Fantasea track “Luxury” could have probably been replaced with a more punchy highlight from the mixtape, like “Esta Noche.”)

Of all the new tracks, “Ice Princess” might be the most unexpected surprise: Drifting along a sample of Morgan Page‘s phenomenal “In The Air” with Angela McCluskey (with that lush chorus still in tact!), Banks serves up chilly rhymes above the twinkling production. “Peep the opulence, ice box the coolest confidence,” she spits. Her explanation of the song’s meaning is also the best.

There’s also the SCNTST-produced standout “Soda,” which she says is about “self-medicating,” that once again pulsates across another early ’90’s House pulse. But here, Banks gives us a glimpse lyrically at a more vulnerable artist numbing herself from the world. “I’m trying to hide behind tired eyes, I sigh/I’m tired of trying to try not to cry,” she sings to us. See? She’s got a softer side too, y’know.

As it turns out, despite her self-destructive social media tendencies, Azealia Banks still very much has potential for greatness, and her unexpected arrival positions her as the year’s most exciting alternative to the usual suspects. Broke is the sound of an impatient, fussy young beast unleashed and, even without straying too far from where she left us two years ago, still feels fresher than most of today’s most hyped (and largely meh) releases.

Let’s just hope she stays off her phone for a while this time around.

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‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ was released on November 7. (iTunes)