On Broke With Expensive Taste

Album Artwork for 'Broke With Expensive Taste,' music by Azealia Banks

While hip-hop producers have always been forthright with their wide range of influences and sources, rappers have largely been less pronounced. Strangely, hip-hop actually abounds with stories of rappers excitedly meeting their favorite musicians from other genres (for example,  Tyler, the Creator’s Instagram account is riddled with selfies he’s taken with his favorite musicians),but within the music itself, these influences are often either strategically encoded in internal references or omitted altogether. Part of this variance between rappers and producers stems from the sheer historical fact that hip-hop production was frequently built from samples: you couldn’t quite hide your interest in soul music when you were audibly sampling Curtis Mayfield. But a larger part of this difference is the strange and tautological belief that rap is supposed to “sound like rap,” which has resulted in rappers incestuously offering only the rappers they listen to, but rarely revealing their favorite jazz singers, rock bands and movie soundtracks, among other things.

On her new album, Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks breaks rank with this established trend. Where other rappers have tried to deviate by securing features with their favorite non-hip-hop acts (see: B.o.B, Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino, Kanye West) or actively making rap songs with the elements of other genres (see: Tyler, the Creator, G-Eazy, Sean Paul), Banks goes all the way, embracing her influences in full. The result is genuine hybridity, songs that truly explore and embody the genetic potential of their origins.

In many ways, it’s a jarring listen. The album begins with “Idle Delilah,” a cheery song in which Banks raps and croons over a breezy, layered instrumental that features an uncharacteristic amount of live instrumentation (for her). It is a sharply built song, especially after considering its many moving parts – paced singing, boastful rapping, xylophone, guitar, off-kilter percussion, distorted samples – but its construction isn’t nearly as impressive as its execution. Banks seamlessly melds a tapestry of sounds without having to alter them. This lack of compromise and its superb execution are just plain uncanny, especially for an artist who wants to pack so many styles into one song (or into one album).

Yet, the album continues this parade of uncompromising gene splicing throughout. On “Gimme a Chance” Banks crisply raps in both English and Spanish, and is backed by a lively horn arrangement and an Enon sample that morph into a salsa arrangement .  Likewise, “Ice Princess” begins as a dark, bass-heavy trap session, then abruptly transforms into pulsating electronic dance-pop. This is not collage. Collage relies on the obviousness of its juxtaposition. Banks never draws attention to her wide-sourcing; she is singularly and obsessively focused on the results.

This obsession with the final result is most apparent in her rhyme patterns. Whether she is rapping or singing, Banks rarely lets syllables go to waste. “Heavy Metal and Reflective” and “Desperado” both have verses where Bank uses the same rhyme for an entire verse, each word cascading into the other like the wail of an ambulance. While this intensive focus limits the substance of her rhymes, it greatly amplifies their melody, which allows Banks to rap aggressively without dominating the tone of the song. This really cannot be overlooked. Azealia Banks has successfully made rap compatible with other genres without having to adjust her aggression: she makes rap blend in without making it fall back (or take over). She’s made pop-rap cool again by doubling down on the rap instead of the pop.

That said, Azealia Banks’ innovations in rap are just one dimension of this album. Alongside her rap experiments are experiments with seapunk. Banks has managed to scrub away the kitschy elements of the odd subgenre without sacrificing its playful essence. “Wallace” and “Miss Amor” are beautifully mixed tracks that evoke the sea without having to be overly submerged in corny aquatic sounds and watery samples.

The absence of kitsch may offend some seapunk purists, but purity and listenability aren’t always the same thing, which is made abundantly clear by “Nude Beach a Go-Go,” the album’s sole blemish. Banks’ reworking of the Ariel Pink song isn’t awful, but it is grossly self-indulgent, like a celebration dance after one’s sixth touchdown against a score-less opponent. Even on an album that is essentially the soundtrack to a tumblr page – complete and conspicuous indulgence in one’s favorite things – it is an outlier that beckons to be skipped.

Nevertheless, Broke with Expensive Taste is largely a triumph. After years of Twitter beefs, soured relationships with other artists, label mishaps and fan inertia, Banks proves that her initial promise was both deserved and understated. She’s much more than a foul-mouthed and proficient rapper from Harlem; she’s actually a formidable, well-rounded musician, with no boundaries. This revelation has benefited both her career and her music. Variously released over a year ago or more, “212,” “Luxury” and “BBD”easily could have become relics of another unblossomed rap career, but this album revitalizes them, repackaging them as the products of an uncompromising curator and creator of melody. If Banks can continue down this interesting path, she probably won’t be broke for long.

Free Advice (and Commands) for the [Online] Hip-Hop World

Hip-Hop Bloggers: 1) Spell-check your shit. Writing with a dialect or nonstandard writing style doesn’t justify being sloppy. 2) Stop acting shocked when rappers “reveal” that they hang out with musicians from other genres. If you are genuinely surprised when this happens, you shouldn’t be writing about music. 3) Read/watch other interviews before you conduct an interview. A million webpages with the same boring ass question (e.g. “So who are your influences?) does nothing for anybody. 4) Respond to your comments. Not everybody is a troll. 5) Don’t be scared to criticize your favorite artists. Thinking through your preferences is engaging and rewarding. Being a fan doesn’t mean being a publicist. 6) Read about hip-hop outside of hip-hop sites. For example, The NY Times, Grantland and other sites that are not solely dedicated to hip-hop have cool (and uncool) things happening all the timel. 7) Be nicer to commenters (I’m currently working on this myself). 8) Stop comparing female rappers solely to other female rappers. Sure, they influence each other and are in conversation with each other, but they shouldn’t be reduced to their sex. They don’t have specially-designed radios that solely play music from female artists. They listen to and are influenced by the same music as everyone else. If we are going to take gender seriously when discussing rap, it needs to be taken seriously for all artists, not just ones with vaginas and/or breasts and/or inexplicable bikinis in music videos.

Hip-Hop Blog Commenters: 1) Stop using the term “real hip-hop.” No one understands what you’re saying, including you. 2) Stop unnecessarily discussing the 90’s. The 90’s were cool, kind of (not really), but they’re gone. No one listens when you shout about how great they were, so chill out. 3) Stop making claims about who is the GOAT (greatest of all time). People say discussions about the GOAT are just for fun (after all, it’s a dumb idea), but no one leaves 400 comments on an article “just for fun.” You are all being hella serious.

Rappers with Twitter Accounts: 1) Stop telling us about your adventures with the ladies. We get it; we listen to your music. 2) Use Twitter strategically. You’ve only got one shot and if you fuck up because of some dick pic gone viral, you’re going to feel incredibly stupid.

Everybody: Stop saying “You didn’t see that on Instagram?” as if everyone else is always on Instagram. (We aren’t)

Rap Genius: Just stop. Seriously though, change your name, keep transcribing songs (You folks are really on point with the transcriptions) and get rid of the whole Rap IQ thing: it is the dumbest concept since reverse racism.

World Star Hip-Hop: Take Hip-hop out of your title and fuck off. Also, fuck off.

Kanye West: You should probably just get a tumblr or something. “Twitter essays” are silly.

Chris Brown: You can sing. You can dance. You can’t rap. Unless you’re doing covers, you should stop.

Childish Gambino: Rap about some different stuff. Yes, you were alienated as a kid because you operated outside of the accepted parameters of Black masculinity. I personally know that it sucked and is hard to forget, but using rap to reverse that history can only go so far. Being accepted by the people who abused you will never satisfy you because the terms are always in their hands. As Frantz Fanon said, the best way vanquish those ghosts from your past is to “skim over this absurd drama that others have staged.” In other words, don’t try to improve a shitty play with stellar acting or rigorous re-writing: just move on. Hip-hop can be your stage, but not as long as your ghosts are your director.

Rihanna: 1) Hi Rihanna  2) Your tweets are weird as hell. 3) None of this is advice.