B. Michael Payne can’t teach you how to think rich
It was Thanksgiving three years ago, and I spent the week at my girlfriend’s parents house in Ohio. All I had for succor in that dry, midwestern household was a surfeit of turkey and Azealia Banks’ then-recent “212”, a lightning blast of a single, blaring out my iPhone every spare moment I could find. Listening to that raunchy, over-stuffed ode to striving and living in the old concrete bunghole where dreams are made up had me itching to be back among the skyscrapers and tourists, terrible odors and late nights where everything seems possible.
Few artists create such an unambiguously star-turning work, yet Banks has been glacially slow to deliver the coup de grâce to her life as a perpetually insolvent, bridge burning brat who couldn’t keep a deal or stay on a label. Every profile written about Banks mentions her “forthcoming album” — always entitled Broke With Expensive Taste — but after 2012, then 2013, came and went, forthcoming no longer seemed for certain.
Now, almost exactly three years since “212” was released on YouTube, Azealia Banks can leave behind the hype and the haters. She can let her debut (née forthcoming) album fight her voluminous fights and do all the talking.
It’s ironic that Banks basically ‘pulled a Beyoncé’ since there could hardly be two more different two performers. Bey is image-obsessed, a consummate professional. Banks, while uber talented, does not seem to have her shit as much together. But the great thing about releasing your album with no warning and little fanfare is that none of that matters. Seeing random tweets last Thursday about an honest-to-god Azealia Banks album on iTunes was all the promotional machinery it took to make me all ‘shut up/take my money’ and buy Broke With Expensive Taste in an instant.
Oddly, the years long wait for Broke has well lowered my expectations for the album. It could also be the high quality trickle of releases over the interim. Before 1989 was a glimmer in T-Swift’s eye, Banks released the stopgap EP 1991. (Also: Azealia Banks is somehow two years younger than Taylor Swift — think about that.) The #seapunk inflected Fantasea mixtape was passable; last year’s Before Expensive Taste was a sight less cohesive, but ultimately more mixtape-y. Some of the best parts of Banks’ previous releases have clung to Broke like barnacles.
The number of good to great-ish songs Banks has made over the last few years — and her perfectionist tendencies — must have made it hard to tracklistBroke. A lightly re-worked “Gimme A Chance”, from the Before mixtape, now has a bachata outro with Banks rapping in español. Former singles and mixtape flotsam like “Luxury”, “Yung Rapunxel”, and “Heavy Metal and Reflective” are all here. A Soundcloud loosie “Count Contessa” was revamped into “Miss Camaraderie”. And of course, the world-destroying “212” makes its like fourth (and hopefully final) appearance. As scattershot and sporadic a career as Banks’ would seem to call for this type of approach, though some earlier standouts like “Jumanji” and “Runnin'” would fit right in, too.
The tenor of the album is more polyglot than the vogue-obsessed 1991 and mermaid house of Fantasea. Sure, there is still lots (and lots) of house-inspired music here. “Desperado” samples MJ Cole’s “Bandelero Desperado” (which honestly sounds like an only slightly less cheesy version of that Propellerheads song from The Matrix). “JFK”, “Wallace”, “Soda”, “Chasing Time” — about half the album — are four-on-the-floor house and techno productions that sound out of step with the present day EDM/dubstep style of electronic rap production. It makes the album sound a little dated, but in a few years it may sound a bit more timeless, as well.
Really, the production is solid throughout the album, though. Banks has choice tracks from Pearson Sound, Lil Internet, Araabmuzik, longtime collaborator Machinedrum, Lone, and, most oddly, Ariel Pink. But the real star of the album is Azealia Banks, rapping her ass off. As it should be. The story around Banks has always been her amazing rap talents; the drama was whether her talents could overcome an inability to play nicely with industry folk. Now that she’s on a label whose premier artists seem to be Korn and something called Five Finger Death Punch, it seems like she’ll be left alone to do her thing.
Banks can cram in six syllables where it seems like only four should fit. Her delivery and flow are Eminemesque when called for. And most impressively, her writing is sharp, detailed, and fresh. At her best, Banks writes these little pocket portraits of situations and people that are so minute and hilarious that you can’t stop thinking about them. That also sort of means that they’re almost impossible to quote because half the wit is in the actual telling, but trust me, they’re there. Even the otherwise unremarkable “Wallace” has this little gem,
he said it’s just me, Miss banks, a.k.a nestle,a.k.a best he, ever had sex he,ever got licked, but he never got swallowed..bitch you know that ni//a in the sugar-pop lotto!He was on her twitter, but he never got followed
It’s been a long, windy road for Azealia Banks, and it’s just led to her first album. She’s clearly got a lot more convoluted, probably brilliant stuff in her future. It’s the same with anyone who’s halfway ambitious: you’re constantly striving for perfection — and thinking you’ve achieved it — tempered by knowing you’re nowhere near where you should be. In a good SPIN profile of Banks, she talks about the genesis of “212”. She was living in a Harlem apartment she could no longer afford, knowing she was squandering the slight chance she had for fame. Saying, “it came out of a place of desperation”, she wrote the song about two possible versions of herself: the girl who “can be the answer” versus the “young new face” whose lunch gets eaten. Both were possibilities for Banks, but only one will become a reality. The gap between what you fear you are and what you want to be is embedded in the album’s title. Based on its considerable quality, Banks’ second album may just be called I’m Rich.