Monday, November 10, 2014

album review: 'broke with expensive taste' by azealia banks

Okay, normally when I get requests, it's pretty scattershot. I get a few for upcoming records I'm obviously going to cover because they're so big it'd be insane for me to ignore them, I get a few for offbeat oddities that I might check out if I find them interesting, and of course I get the requests for records that came out two years ago and weren't particularly well received even then. Let me clarify something about my schedule - with every artist I cover, I endeavour to assemble a full and fair picture, which means going through their past discography to get some historical context - which means that in addition to covering the album and listening to it multiple times, I'm also backtracking through history, either for the first time or just to get back up to speed. In other words, a lot of time and work goes into my schedule, and I can't cover everything, no matter how hard I try, and even my year-end catch-up of albums won't snag everything.

And yet, when I get a wave of requests for an album where nearly the only comments are asking for one specific debut record, I take notice. And the more they poured in, the less they made sense. I had heard the name Azealia Banks before for a strong EP and mixtape she dropped back in 2012, but since then her buzz has been less from her music and more from feuds with fellow musicians like Angel Haze and Baauer and from asinine remarks she made at tabloid fixtures like Perez Hilton. It didn't help that there had apparently been label problems that led her to getting dropped from Universal and this album being delayed extensively. So with little-to-no promotion and following in the footsteps of her idol Beyonce, Azealia Banks released her debut out of nowhere and I started getting requests to cover it. On the one hand, she probably couldn't have picked a better time - with the biggest charting names in pop rap being Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, this is a better time to be a woman in hip-hop for a long time. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly sure what I was stepping into with Broke With Expensive Taste, and I remembered what happened with Angel Haze's Dirty Gold very early this year, a record that really was a complete non-starter even though it did have songs with commercial appeal. So what are we getting from Azealia Banks?

Honestly, not a lot. The more I've listened through this album, the less I understood why anyone wanted me to cover this album, because while it might be an interesting release for the sheer clash of genre and styles that Azealia Banks includes on this album, flying in the face of any cohesive sound, Broke With Expensive Taste did not grip me. I'm not sure what I was expecting from this outside of a pop flavoured hip-hop release that reportedly had elements of house music - in other words, I wasn't expecting anything lyrical or deep - but even with those expectations or placed in comparison with other pop rap albums released this year that I've covered, this record just fell flat for me. I'm not saying it's bad - it's definitely passable, and I get why people might like it - but I've definitely heard better this year, even in the mainstream.

What blows my mind is when so many critics have praised this album as 'original' in a supposedly 'dull year' for music, when really the biggest innovations this record have brought is complete tonal inconsistency, explicit lyricism, and Azealia Banks rapping over icier house beats and production, most of which you can trace directly back to the dance scene of the mid-to-late 90s. In fact, for as much as the production is being cited as innovative and creative, I can't be as complimentary. That's not saying there aren't moments that do have some colour - once 'Idle Delilah' gets going, the percussion did have some texture and the guitar leads were a nice touch, 'Gimme A Chance' had an old-school grimy bass heavy vibe punctuated with a good horn melody I enjoyed, 'Wallace' had an explosive drum progression that was pretty damn solid, 'Ice Princess' did a lot to intensify a frigid vibe with the xylophone and trap beat, 'Yung Rapunxel' had a choppy eerie sound that worked with the lo-fi screamed chorus, and the Ariel Pink collaboration 'Nude Beach a Go-Go' tried to go for a surf rock vibe that just reminded me I could be listening to the Alvvays debut album again and having more fun. But most of this album falls towards very typical, polished house music with occasional trap influences that are rarely as dark or interesting as they could have been, mostly because the melody lines are bare-bones and are much more concerned with cutting to a dance rhythm than any sort of potent punchy hook. 

Now to be fair, I probably liked the production most out of anything on this album, because for what it is, it fits. It's crisp, it's glossy, it's got the icy sort of glamour that Lady Gaga loves to cultivate with just enough of a gothic undertone to add a veneer of darkness. But for as much as this album would like to affiliated with the 'witch house' movement in terms of image and style, it's a connection that feels painfully thin. It reminds more than a little of the progression of the goth scene across the 80s and early 90s, where the melancholy tones was subverted and eventually replaced by a dance vibe when it crossed over into the rave scene. Broke With Expensive Tastes feels like the hip-hop culmination of similar trends, and to a certain extent feels watered down, especially when we get to the lyrical subject matter. Now I wasn't expecting much at all here - this is pop rap that's primarily concerned with dance, you're not getting substance - and to her credit, there are moments where Azealia Banks brings some flavour. Most of her songs fall into traditional luxury rap, but her bisexuality and explicit language can bring out some lyrics that have some visceral punch, and she carries herself with enough ego that you can buy into her material. And there are songs like 'Ice Princess' that show some creativity to take some of the witch imagery she's fond of and fuse it with a different approach, or when she drops into Spanish on 'Gimme A Chance' to add some greater flavour.

But let's be honest here, in terms of content this record does not do a lot beyond brand and luxury rap references, swaggering hookup jams, and the same sort of brash, in-your-face songwriting that you'd find from most rappers in the genre. Sure, she's frequently explicit in her sexual references, but with so many of the beats falling into chilly house vibes, I'm placed more in the mindset of high-end downtown clubs where people throw around a lot of money or flaunt sexuality for cheap provocation, but there's little beneath it - it's a provocative pose, but there's little beneath it. Say what you will about how filthy the Run The Jewels and Gangsta Boo collaboration 'Love Again (Akinyele Back)' was, the grime and sleaze felt fully realized. Here, for as scattershot as this album is trying to be, it can't help but feel calculated in its content. And it's not because of the wordplay - I'll give Azealia Banks this, she's a damn impressive lyricist in terms of structuring a multisyllabic rhyme scheme and flow, and while her frequent interjection of half-formed words and sounds varied between workable and sloppy, it did add enough of an organic element to keep the momentum, which is quintessential for dance music.

But my biggest issue comes with her delivery - not that she isn't competent behind the microphone, but that I get so little flavour or investment or emotion, which flies completely in the face of how explicit her lyrics can get. Say what you will about how stupid Nicki Minaj's lyrics can get, or how Iggy Azalea's delivery can be smugly arrogant or even outright offensive in how she co-opts a southern accent in order to spit, but they at least have raw presence and fire behind the microphone. But when you have a beat like the hollow metallic howl that opens with a chainsaw on 'Heavy Metal and Reflective', where you'd expect the MC to necessarily deliver her rhymes with more raw energy, Azealia Banks' detachment really hurts this album, especially when opts for a more melodic flow that demands investment and that Dessa does significantly better. Don't get me wrong, I understand her persona - icy, detached, impeccably composed, and most of her rhyming style and ability calls back to that - but if you want to rap over production this heavy, you need to be able to match it, and it's very telling that when Azealia Banks does open up and scream, it's beneath a lo-fi fuzz and set near the back of the mix.

So at the end of the day... look, I get this record probably isn't for me. It's an album full of icy dance tracks with a hip-hop undercurrent that will probably play incredibly well in upscale nightclubs. But by the standards of pop rap, this does very little for me. Azealia Banks' persona hasn't risen above a more explicit version of what many female rappers in the mainstream already do, and coupled with shallow content, wordplay that's well-structured but rarely rising above cliche, and beats that feel cribbed from a half dozen eras of hip-hop and house music and never feeling cohesive. From me, it's a light 6/10, but keep in mind that if you're more the audience for this brand of dance-flavoured pop rap, you'll probably like it better. Otherwise, I get why there is hype behind Azealia Banks now, but I really don't see it lasting.

No comments:

Post a Comment