If you’re still trying to label Azealia Banks, good luck. She sheds skins with the same frequency that she burns bridges. She’s a chameleon adaptable to sound and style but not to circumstance, and her lack of malleability where others are concerned is primarily responsible for stunting her professional growth. It’s also what makes her music feel so uniquely specialized and exclusive. This is her show and no one else’s, and she makes it known at all times. She dictates her own narrative, even when it’s to her own detriment.
Unfortunately, the music has often been an afterthought with Banks, who is something of a fire starter when it comes to public interactions. She has been in more verbal scuffles and scrapes than most artists endure in their entire careers. There was Angel Haze. There was Diplo. There was Baauer. There was Perez Hilton. There was Pharrell. There was Iggy Azalea, and subsequently T.I., and that’s not even half. Then, of course, there was her public falling out with Interscope earlier this year, which reopened the door for her debut to be released, almost three years after her galloping hip-house lead single, “212″ (Feat. Lazy Jay), propelled her to international notoriety. Throughout the turmoil, Banks’s confidence in her own product never wavered, and at long last, she delivers.
The long-awaited debut, Broke With Expensive Taste, is an uptempo house transformation from a hip-hop avant-gardist who manages to remain remarkably genre ambiguous. She arranges conflicting elements into a collage: Many of the gaudier tracks, like “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” could be slipped into a European DJ’s electronic set, yet they still function as rap songs.
Broke With Expensive Taste is, at its core, a rap album (see the frigid, AraabMuzik-produced “Ice Princess” for proof), and Banks is a deft lyricist who packs syllables into tight spaces. However, it’s what happens in the album’s margins that makes it truly mesmerizing — the key-shifting vocal arrangements, the harmonies and the ceaselessly ambitious production.
Banks assembled producers from both coasts and across the pond Bodikka, Lone, M. J. Cole, Pearson Sound and SCNTST from England; Lazy Jay (aka Basto) from Belgium; and homegrown prospects Lil Internet, Yung Skeeter, AraabMuzik and machinedrum. Together, they craft one of the more interesting and eclectic assortment of beats this year (you can vogue through almost the entire album), especially “Yung Rapunxel” and “Bbd,” which both click and beep in ways previously unfamiliar to rap. Even when she steps out of her realm (the dreamy, Ariel Pink-produced “Nude Beach a Go-Go”), she seems relatively comfortable.
Broke With Expensive Taste peppers her raps into this chaos so deftly that it nearly becomes one with the noise. She has the tendency to hunker down into boring Madlib-like rhyme schemes that plug in words that sound like they were randomly generated, and if you aren’t paying close attention it all starts to blend together. She’s at her best when mashing worlds together flirting with melodies and flipping fierce, knotty rhymes all at once. “Gimmie a Chance” pairs a sample of Enon‘s “Knock That Door” with record scratching and celebratory jazz trumpets that segue seamlessly into a sashaying bachata where she sings and raps fluently in Spanish. On “Miss Camaradierie,” the album’s shimmering closer, she whisper-raps into an echoey, raspy alto hook that carries over stratified synths that each get their featured moment. The album’s centerpiece, “Wallace,” puts it all together, and it’s a microcosm of the entire project: When Azealia Banks gets hardest to define is when she gets easiest to understand.