Harlem rapper Azealia Banks has struggled with highly-publicized album delays and label woes since 2011 when her early single “212” became an underground hit. After dozens of false starts, release windows that came and went, a well-received EP and a mixtape, Banks was smart to just back out of the spotlight and get her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste out the door when the time came. There’s plenty to be said about how young artists are marketed in the digital age, how they’re pushed into the public eye well before they’ve had a chance to actually prove themselves and only then judged on their success or failure. Plenty of new artists buckle under the pressure and release a disappointing product, or their talents never coalesce at all and they seem to just disappear without a shred of fanfare. For Banks, the hype came and went and she missed the wave. She’s more aware of this than anyone.
Still, maybe Banks is lucky. Now that the album is finally out it can heard with fresh ears and approached with fresh minds. If it were released immediately following “212”, Broke With Expensive Taste would have seemed disastrously unfocused; dropped a few months after her Fantasea mixtape in 2013, the album might have been seen as dense and inconsistent. Released in 2014, cleared of expectation, audiences can hear the record for what it is: a postmodern pop epic with a little bit for everyone.
Broke With Expensive Taste is a rare first record that not only capitalizes on the artist’s hype, but almost doesn’t go far enough in exposing the artist’s talents to the public. It shares a lot with a few classic records: the same way that Paul’s Boutique, Stankonia and Since I Left You jump between an endless cache of retro samples and styles, Broke With Expensive Taste dances around its influences with masterful agility and function; it’s also an album that’s undeniably of its time, blending rap, UK garage, grime, house, R&B and pop into a flamboyant fireworks show of a record. Banks has directed her music into a thousand directions at once, and for an artist with a reputation for not being particularly reliable, it’s incredible how well it works.
That said, not every stylistic acquisition is a success. Banks is more suited to propulsive electronic beats than the sluggish trap of AraabMuzik-produced “Ice Princess”, the flamenco interlude on “Gimme a Chance”, or the strained bubblegum surf-pop of “Nude Beach a Go-Go” (suitably produced and co-written by indie dreamweaver Ariel Pink), but even these oddly-executed ideas contribute to the vast variety of flavors and personalities on Broke With Expensive Taste. Banks’ charisma—equally present in her smooth singing voice, powerful rap flow and playfully risqué lyricism—lets her keep up with the sheer disparity of sounds in the production better than most other artists could ever dream of. At the same time, it pushes the production to a bit of starring role, especially on songs like “Desperado” where Banks steps off the mic during several extended passages. For a first album, it doesn’t feel like there’s quite enough of her on it. Of course, considering the hypersexual imagery of “212” and the heavily aggressive language on “Miss Amour”, a little might be too much for some.
But these intentionally divisive moves just make Banks’ mission more clear with Broke With Expensive Taste: she wants makes an impression. As an artist, she’s clearly uninterested in pleasing everyone (or anyone at all). The massive amount of influences that she administers on the album is not the result of throwing everything at a wall to see what sticks, but rather a commitment to quality. Her eagerness to do justice to every track is palpable, but it comes from a deep sense of artistry, not any innate desire to please. The music is consistent in its upbeat spirit and confrontational character, even as the beats and musical styles shift in and out of recognition, proving that Banks isn’t just trying on clothes to see what fits. Of course, the expansive collection of taste that Banks shows on the album can be disorienting, and it’s a challenge to find a solid throughline to connect with. The tightly constructed singles “212” and “Heavy Metal and Reflective” stick out among the floatiness of the deeper cuts like “Luxury” and “Idle Delilah”, and while every track has its own moments of value, as a package, Broke With Expensive Taste struggles to leave a stable impression.
Still, as wildly disparate as it is, with songs culled from a three-year career and innumerable influences, Broke With Expensive Taste is a suitable mission statement from an artist hoping to make an impact. For album number two, Banks needs to get production that accentuates rather than buries her unusual, volatile personality, but for now, Broke With Expensive Taste will do nicely. No rush, though; if these three years have proved anything, it’s that we’re willing to wait.
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