In many cases hype is a divisive force, splitting listeners into two extreme camps so that no one can see clearly from either side. Azealia Banks‘ “212” did just that: inexperienced, over excited fans thought she was the messiah, while staunch hip-hop nerds thought she was fashion rap trash. Neither, of course, were right.
For one thing, it would be very hard to say that “212” isn’t a good song. It walks the line between rap insider and outsider so perfectly that its hard not to enjoy it before you realize you should be judging it. This is, to some extent, why many large media outlets chose to insert Azealia Banks into the hype machine. It’s equal parts experimental song structure and rappity rapping. She showed promise as a wide ranging audience pleaser with serious depth: college kids, dabblers, rock critics, as well as many mainstream rap fans would like her. It is important, then, to note that her recent floundering has not been a result of us finally pulling the wool out of our ears. She has not fooled us. We have simply failed to remember that the ability to make one good song is not necessarily the ability to make many.
Fantasea, however, doesn’t show Banks to be a bad rapper in any respect. She has a style that is all her own, a mix of slippery tongued, Reggae toast fast rap and the carefully accented drawl of Missy Elliot. At her best, she can even sounds like she’s attempting a 2012 update of The Jaz and Jay-Z’s “The Originators”: she’s trying to make fun and funky music accompanied by meaty lyricism.
Banks’ first full-length release, unfortunately, shows that she is really grasping at creative straws. To this point, Azealia has made two songs that easily stand on their own: “212” and “Jumanji”. All but a few songs on Fantasea are either obvious knock-offs of one of those two songs or combinations of the two. “Neptune”, for example, mimics the “I guess her cunt gettin’ eatin” run from “212” exactly, while “Runnin” cops the jaunty flow of “Jumanji” and inserts new words. The single arrow in her lyrical quiver is the ability to string very loosely rhymed words and phrases together in impressively long strings: jamma jamma, banana, answer, cheddar, leather, letters, hammers, nyah nyah nyah, cameras, scandals, damage. Her ability to impress the listener is based on how different she can make these words while still sounding like she’s actually rhyming. “212” is the only instance in which she was capable of pulling off this trick for an entire song.
She has, at least, an unconscious knowledge of this crutch, because Fantasea includes a few drastic outliers. Instead of the dance-inspired Karl Lagerfeld-rap of most of the mixtape, tracks like “Nathan” are attempts to show Azealia’s New York realness through heavier cadences and beats, to varying levels of success. “Nathan” may be the tape’s best track, if only because her faux-gymnastics are kept to a minimum by the appearance of Styles P and ear-worm hook made from a highly simplified, repeated version of her signature flow. It shows that Banks isn’t entirely clueless in terms of melody. She knows there are other tricks in the book, even if she can’t always perform them. In this regard, she flops more than she succeeds. The tape’s last track, a short remix of the Dipset’s 2010 comeback single “Salute”, shows that she’s not actually very comfortable in a keyed-up Harlem street rap setting. She follows the Diplomat’s template with very little comfort or conviction.
With all of this said, Fantasea is not torture. Its songs are at least as good or better than half the tracks that pop up on my RSS feed daily. It’s extreme averageness, however, only serves to make hype’s role Fantasea’’s exposure all the more infuriating. We were billed a next-level rapper that would be able to take the genre to new territory from the inside. Instead, we got a middle-of-the-road artist who is going to get way more media and industry attention than she deserves for years. I can only hope that her meteoric rise soon slows enough to scare her into coming up with a new idea or two, because we’re going to be stuck with her for a while.