why we're still behind azealia banks
Broke With Expensive Taste, the debut album from the Harlem-born rapper, finally dropped last month after a lengthy delay but i-D thinks it was worth the wait. We ask if its time to start paying attention to Azealia Banks again...
By late 2014, it had become hard to talk about Azealia Banks without reeling off a list of cliches and stale observations. The Harlem-born rapper was impossible to work with, she picked too many stupid fights on Twitter, her album would probably never come out now, she'd pissed off everyone in the industry… and hey, she only had one good track anyway. Two years earlier, the astonishing 212 had made her pop's hottest property; but since then, she'd even managed to upset her gay fans by calling Perez Hilton a "faggot" and refusing to apologise for it. Basically, Banks had screwed it up for herself.
Then earlier this month, with virtually no prior warning, she released Broke With Expensive Taste, the debut album that had become something of a music industry myth after being postponed countless times since September 2012. An even bigger surprise followed: the album turned out to be pretty good.
Let's not get too ahead of ourselves, though: Broke With Expensive Taste is as obviously flawed as the hot-tempered, single-minded and fiercely intelligent 23-year-old woman who made it. Banks worked with a different producer on almost every track, over a pretty protracted period of time, so guess what, the album has wound up about as tight as a kaftan. Its 16 tracks range from the menacing trap of Heavy Metal and Reflective, to the retro UK garage beats of JFK, to the playful tropicalia of Gimme a Chance (think Gloria Estefan goes rap), to the irresistibly slinky dance-pop of Ice Princess. There's even a freaky collaboration with Ariel Pink called Nude Beach A-Go-Go that sounds like a lost 60s pop classic that might've been banned from the radio at the time due to its risque subject matter.
But crucially, Banks has the on-record charisma to pull off this slightly messy genre-hopping. She's not just a fantastic rapper, but a pretty decent singer too, and her ability to switch between spitting rhymes and belting out melodies is what makes her stand out. As a wordsmith, she's inconsistent - sometimes she seems to value the sound of her words more than their meaning - but when she's good, she's devastating. Check out how she cuts down a rival with a couple of clever MJ references on Heavy Metal and Reflective: "I be PYT / You Billie Jean." Six words, that's all, and she's ready to dust off her knuckles and strut away into the sunset.
At times, there's even a humility that suggests bitchy, bratty Azealia Banks has grown up a bit. "Check my watch, I had the future in my pocket, but I lost it when I gave it to you," she sings regretfully on Chasing Time, presumably taking aim at the record company she split from shortly before she self-released this album. Banks is also showing signs of hard-won maturity in her interviews - sure, she'll dismiss one of Disclosure as "that little boy with all those pimples around his mouth", but she'll also admit that a difficult romantic relationship turned her into a bit of a cow for a while. "I was always on Twitter, arguing. I wasn't happy," she told The Guardian earlier this month.
So when she sings "I used to be your girl" on Soda, it's hard not to sigh and think, oh go on Azealia, you can be our girl again - as long as you carry on behaving yourself. After all, whatever she's been over the last three years, Azealia Banks has never even threatened to be boring.
Text Nick Levine
Photography Ami Sioux
Styling Erika Kurihara
[From The Whatever The Weather Issue, i-D No. 317, Pre-Spring 2012]