Azealia Banks does herself few favors. Between her short-lived senseless beefs, desire to repudiate herself from rap, and meteoric Internet rise, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s a flash-in-the-pan. It’s unclear whether she’s doing this out of a desire to express herself, land a one-woman Broadway show, or score a multi-million dollar modeling deal. After all, mermaid chic is very voguish this fall.
Everyone liked “212,” but I was skeptical that she was benefiting from the Odd Future effect: the scabrous video seemed to outstrip the actual music. Compelling, sure. But how much was predicated on being jailbait in Mickey Mouse clothing rapping well about getting her cunt eaten? You had to respect her ability to understand how to make an entrance, but I wasn’t sure that she’d ever follow it up with anything equally memorable — or that she wasn’t a Nicki Minaj manque.
I was wrong.
When I played “212” at a Labor Day pool party, the place detonated into a spontaneous all-girl dance-off. This goes back to rule #1 of DJing: if you’re getting girls to dance, you have won. As bizarre and moody as she seems on Twitter and YouTube, Banks’ musical decisions trump the immaturity. The first sign came on her 1991 EP, a record seemingly designed to soundtrack a cocaine binge set to Paris is Burning (with the sound off: Dark Side/Wizard of Oz-style). That’s new territory for rap. Hip House like Snap, Marky Mark, C&C Music Factory, and AB Logic reigned during the early 90s, but the raps were usually an afterthought — a momentary adrenaline rush to keep energy levels high before the take-it-to-church outro.
Banks has taken her rap predecessors (Kim, Foxy, Nicki) and fused them with the handbag house of Crystal Waters, the ideas of Aaliyah and Timbo, and the style and protean nature of Grace Jones and Vogue-era Madonna. While Nicki insists on cynical sound-a-like summer jams underwritten by Mattel, Banks is attuned to the fringes of sound, working with Machine Drum, Lunice and Jacques Greene. A lot of it is just good taste. She sounds like someone able to understand Generation Ecstasy, not just someone who has popped it. Hell, even Deen liked 1991. It was the most fun dance party since that episode of the Simpsons when Homer took Bart to the gay steel mill that played “Everybody Dance Now” promptly at 5 p.m. We work hard, we play hard.
Banks might be the only musically underrated Internet phenomenon. She got the cover of Spin, but July’s Fantasea was barely even reviewed by most of the media. They’re more interested in her wars and photo shoots than her actual output. That’s a shame because it’s a great and deceptively weird record. A minute into the first song, “Out of Space,” the Hit Boy-like beat drops out and a sample of Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil” replaces it. Then Banks returns to spit double-time raps with enough style and skill to humiliate anyone in Slaughterhouse. Songs are garnished by snippets of cool jazz and a sample of Zhane’s “Hey Mr. DJ.” She does what Puffy couldn’t do: make Styles P sound good on a club jam. She breaks out a rudebwoi patois and complements it with a soulful singing voice that would make Cece Penniston proud.
I’ve learned better than to bet on the long-term futures of these Internet rappers. After all, Banks is signed to Interscope and thus, is one phone call away from being forced to abandon deep house for some sort of dumbstep. So it’s important to let her have her moment. The Nicki Minaj of “Monster” seems content to accept the lobotomy, off to become another American Idiot. But this is Banks time to bask on the shore. She’s real. For now.