As the end of the year approaches, it’s customary for critics and fans to take stock of what happened throughout the past 12 months and start stamping their narratives upon it. For hip-hop, the most common refrain has seemed to be that 2014 was underwhelming. Now anyone who’s been following Potholes knows there’s been a stunning amount of good-to-great music released this year, but the lack of quality releases major label from major labels is striking; add that to the general malaise in the music industry and it looks like there could be a serious crisis. Well, Azealia Banks’ shows this drought affects the industry bigwigs far more than the actual artists. Her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, is everything that a major label album should be: ambitious, grandiose, teeming with ideas and energy. It’s not her fault Interscope had no idea what to do with it. Its loss is our gain and now that the album is finally out to the public, it’s proving to be just the prescription that hip-hop needed.
Azealia Banks has spent the past three years as a cautionary tale. Exploding onto the scene in 2011 with her single “212,” she quickly wasted her acclaim and goodwill by sparking public feuds seemingly every other week. But Broke With Expensive Taste acts as retroactive justification for her inability to always work well with others. It’s as uncompromising and individual as a debut album can be. It explodes with sounds, globe-trotting the musical world to pick the best styles and foreign accents. Even though the album can go off the rails, there are no awkward fits. From the screaming chorus of “Yung Rapunxel” to the vogue pop of “Chasing Time” to the utterly bizarre, surf rock collab with L.A. weirdo Ariel Pink (“Nude Beach A Go Go”), it all flows together and connects organically.
The global nature of this project shouldn’t betray that it’s truly a New York album. In an era when the mecca of hip-hop has been reduced to an antique store, Broke With Expensive Taste pushes the city into the new millennium. Banks hosts a rapping clinic for starry-eyed strugglers throughout the entire album. Her brash delivery, paired with syllabic layering, is reminiscent of fellow Harlem rapper Cam’ron. It’s a connection to the city’s golden past without falling dependent on it. Instead, the album searches for a modern, schizophrenic sound and tone more accurately drawn from New York’s eclectic verve.
That ethos immediately shines through on the album’s first quarter. Opening track “Idle Delilah” starts as a minimal dance beat before slowly adding more elements until it bursts at the seams. “Chasing Time” is an up-tempo, party-rap track that soon morphs into a Latin salsa jam. Next up is “Desperado,” a blunted, jazzy, boom bap loop that glitches apart halfway through. The sinewy glue keeping all these elements intertwined is, quite obviously but also significantly, Azealia Banks herself, rapping her ass off, displaying songwriting skills beyond her age and switching between singing and rapping so flawlessly that it should make pop rap superstars like Drake and Nicki Minaj a little uneasy.
Broke With Expensive Taste is a tremendous debut stuffed with ideas, but it’s also a bold statement about what music can be in 2014. The last few years have seen a glut of incredibly talented female rappers from all parts of the country. Yet for all the prospects, no focal point or landmark album has torn the gates open. For this whole year, it looked like it was going to be Nicki Minaj’s The Pink Print, supposedly a “blueprint” of sorts for female rappers going forward. While we’re still waiting on that, it looks like Banks beat her to the punch. Broke With Expensive Taste is a genre-breaking (not “bending,” but breaking) tour de force that paves the way for all female rappers, who should look and sound like anything they want to.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Broke With Expensive Taste on Amazon.