The hip-hop heads seem to have completely glazed over this record, partly, I assume, because the beats are more house than they’re used to; partly, I assume, because Azealia Banks sings as much as she raps and that’s upsetting to people for fuck knows why. Imagine Nicki Minaj, if Nicki Minaj were able to bring the fire of “Monster” more consistently while singing hooks as good as “Super Bass”; even if Banks’ verses are rarelyas good as “Monster” and her hooks rarely as good as the one on “Super Bass,” her repertoire isn’t as scattershot as Minaj’s. And for the record, the comparison isn’t because they’re both femcees who sing; close your eyes to Banks’ last verses on “Idle Delilah” (“He said, ‘The puss deeper than the deep blue sea’ / Indeed, the puss deeper than the three fugees”) or “Wallace” and you’ll see why I brought Minaj up.
It’s all a shame, because unless Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar deliver the goods as promised earlier this year, I’m going to go ahead and call Broke With Expensive Taste (girl knows how a man feels) the hip-hop album of the year. So far as I can gather from reading professional reviews, the worst thing about Broke With Expensive Taste was that it took two years to make; the world moves fast, and “212” might as well have been a generation ago. I understand, but at the same time, that’s a really dumb criticism – need I remind everyone of similarly slow gestating debut albums and how they all fell flat on their faces? AlunaGeorge? Charli XCX? Icona Pop? At least this one wasn’t just a carrying case for “212”; if “212” were removed, it’d still be a good album.
“212” is a great song, of course, but let’s talk about some of the other highlights first, in case you have your doubts. There’s “Idle Delilah,” whose opening verse is one of the album’s best, wherein Banks manages to demonstrate both her singing and her rapping chops at the same time; sneaking in such a catchy melody while maintaining such speed isn’t an easy feat. Most of it doesn’t make any sense, but it sounds great as it rolls off her tongue (this is true for most of her raps, now that I think about it), “Trout and trees remind me of my / Darling D the Diver / Diver D was a satyr, a / Father figurine” (pronounced in a way to rhyme with “wine”). But the verse’s second half shifts into more serious planes, “All your friends are hired, all your friend are fading”; “Are you suicidal? Are you in denial?”), but unless you’re reading along, it’s hard to imagine you’ll catch the shift in tone, what with the introduction of a twitchy guitar riff over the tribal percussion.
The beats of the next two songs are even better: “Gimme a Chance” is a blaze of triumphant horns that suddenly enters the Dominican Republic on a summer night, while I need to thank Azealia Banks for introducing me to MJ Cole’s “Bandelero Desperado”, that begins with a cut-up wintry (speaking of which, this album’s well-sequenced) piano sample before a melodic synth line takes over, and the verses are grounded by these lovely pings. Azealia Banks’ version adds, well, Azealia Banks, but also a saxophone in the intro that sounds so natural, that I’m shocked that it’s not on MJ Cole’s original. Meanwhile, “Heavy Metal and Reflexive” – released as a single a while back – works much better in the context of the album where it doesn’t sound like a tossed off, “Ice Princess,” which contains the album’s most sing-along-able choruses and “Miss Amor” all work up mean grooves. Some quotables in the verses of “Ice Princess,” in case you missed them: “I don’t see no limits so I strive and I shine twice”; “Winter-wonderland body so frosty in that Bugatti / Porcelain-Snowflakin’ Papi, popsicle in ya pocket / I’m polarizing ya profits / I freeze ‘em, flip ‘em, and rock it.”
It’s not a mark against any of these tracks to say that they’re not as great as “212”; it just speaks volumes of how much greater “212” is, so great, in fact, that it’s tongue-fucking your ex-girlfriend and/or ruining your ex-boyfriend as we speak. People (including Banks herself) focussed too much on the word “cunt,” gleefully echoing after every verse while Lazy Jay gives you a few seconds to breathe before the next verse or chorus (“MINE! MINE!”). Her flow here isn’t just unstoppable, it’s also unique; rappers milking out one rhyme for as long as they possibly can is nothing new, but in the second and third verses, Banks’ is a literal literary machine gun, losing all semblance of sense to rhyme “212” with as many things as she can “2-1-deuce”, “2-1-zoo,” “Who let you come to 1-2”, etc.
Actually, of the 16 tracks, the only weak cut is “JFK”, also the only one to feature another rapper, Theophilus London, who doesn’t match up to Banks (how could he?). The song effectively ends halfway through before taking the rest of its 5 minute length to build a house beat up to … the second chorus and then patter out. But otherwise, nothing here is bad; no, not even “Nude Beach a-Go-Go,” which seems to be everyone’s favorite spanking child; it’s out of place, sure, but her sweet vocals are so much better than Ariel Pink’s baritone, that I can’t see how someone would prefer the one that appears on Pom Pom more than this.