Could it really be three years since divisive rapper Azealia Banks dropped "212" and instantly became one of the most adored female rappers in the world? It has been three years - three long years over which Banks let loose stray tracks, her debut EP, messy mixtapes, and tweet after vitriol-filled tweet, starting beef with just about every celebrity imaginable. All of it seemed to point toward her long-promised debut, Broke with Expensive Taste, which, until Friday, failed to materialise. Since its initially slated release date of September 2012, it had started to seem likely that the album would never arrive and Banks would simply fade out of relevance. On November 7, Banks self-released the album in collaboration with production company Prospect Park, a move that was met with huge excitement all around the world. This points to the fact that against the odds, she has held onto at least some of the power that she once had, and in fact, while it is messy, overlong and inconsistent, the mythical album actually does deliver.
Broke with Expensive Taste features an extraordinary amount of previously released materiel, from the bangers "212" (still incredible, proving that Banks' use of the c-word is not just a novelty) and Banks' theme song "Yung Rapunxel," to the more recent "Heavy Metal and Reflective" and "Chasing Time." It's inevitable that material recorded over such a lengthy span of time (in the world of hip-hop and dance music, anyway) would be stylistically diverse, which is especially true given that Banks has never really been beholden to trends in hip-hop. Arguably, "212" was an antidote to the skittering hi-hats and sharp snares that have characterised contemporary hip-hop and influenced other dance/rap hybrids like Vic Mensa's recent hit "Down on My Luck," but Banks has never followed a formula. Over the course of this album she moves from deep, four-to-the-floor house beats, to the glitchy jazz of tracks like "Desperado," radio-ready dance-pop ("Chasing Time" and "Soda,") and even Beach Boys inspired surf-pop on Ariel Pink collaboration "Nude Beach a Go-Go."
Despite the very clear overreach of the record, one fact is undisputable: you cannot match Azealia on the mic. As a rapper she possesses the kind of talent that you can only purchase from the devil at the crossroads. Full of slang, vulgarity, boasting, clever metaphors that function more like punctuation than wordplay, machine-gun rhymes and relentless flows, Banks is a serious contender. She is also a wonderful singer, with a distinctively feminine and soulful tone that is capable of being both forceful and soft in a single breath. There is no denying that Banks has a lot of natural talent, as well as an ear for interesting and unusual production, such as the Eastern pipes that hover in the background of the enigmatic "Wallace," the glistening, futuristic surfaces of "Heavy Metal and Reflective" and the strange rock/salsa combo of "Gimme a Chance."
Of course, Banks' blinding talent and excellent taste would be all bluster if she didn't have the focus and ambition to back it up, and for the most part she does. There are some very clear missteps on the record, most obviously "Wallace" which is despite its quirks is dull and lacking in hooks. The same is true of "JFK," which features rapper Theophilus London over some rather ordinary production that does little to make an impression. Near the record's conclusion, aforementioned Ariel Pink collaboration "Nude Beach a Go-Go" comes out of nowhere, as if you're suddenly listening to another, unrelated album. It's the record's only complete failure. On the album's best tracks, it becomes apparent how unusual and special Banks is - the album's opening hat trick of "Idle Delilah," "Gimme a Chance" and "Desperado" in particular gets the album off to a great start, moving from junkyard percussion calypso, through angular rap-rock and salsa (featuring a prominent sample of Enon's "Knock That Door") and ending with a strange fusion of garage and jazz.
Later on, "Ice Princess," featuring production from AraabMuzik that moves seamlessly from skittering trap in the verses, to a sturdy house beat in the chorus, gives a strong example of Banks' clever and playful wit. She produces as many ice puns and metaphors as she can (including comparing herself to appropriately named frost queen Anna Wintour) over a melody provided by plinking bells that are not festive, but sinister and intimidating. Banks' music is all about confidence, and that shows not just through her lyrics, which are celebratory in the least humble way, but also the forcefulness and uncompromising nature of the music provided by Banks' chosen collaborators. This is music that is genuinely empowering. As per the title, Banks encourages finding the finer things within limited means, accentuating the positive, creating a certain luxury out of being confident and in control. It's no surprise that when former label Universal tried to control her, her response was a big "fuck you."
Broke with Expensive Taste finds Banks singing much more than ever before, with several songs such as "Soda" and "Chasing Time," consisting of more singing than rapping. It was a typically bold move to depart from what initially made her so interesting to many people, but it does not always work. The lyrics that Banks sings often seem vague and unimportant. It seems that rapping intrinsically allows her to say more by allowing her to be as creative and verbose and she wants to be, particularly with her lightning fast skills. This makes "Soda," one of the weaker tracks, despite some fascinatingly hazy backing beats and solid pop hooks. The same can be said of "Chasing Time," which sounds like an above average cut from any pop radio playlist.
That brings us to a key point about Broke with Expensive Taste; just about any rap fan will find something to like on this album. The same quality that makes it messy and inconsistent (and more than a little tiring over its hour-long runtime) also makes it a record with broader appeal and a clear indicator that Banks is seeking out the larger audience that she clearly deserves. Broke with Expensive Taste is not perfect - in fact it is far from it - but it is a solid record from a young artist that has always shown a huge amount of promise. Maybe she's too hyperactive and hyper-creative to ever deliver a truly consistent full-length record, but what she has given us is pretty damn good. It ends with two twin tracks ("Miss Amor" and "Miss Camaraderie") that would have had audiences and critics salivating in the heady time just after "212" took off, proving that after such a long wait, Azealia Banks has lost none of her spark. If you can ignore her unparalleled ability to fuck around and start shit on Twitter, you just might learn something from her.