Azealia Banks – 1991
Hype has never been more fleeting than now. As swiftly as an artist can be catapulted from obscurity, going from laptop experimentation at home to riding a euphoric wave of universal critical appraisal, they can be cast back to the wilderness. With this tendency of the information age to create peaks and troughs of greater magnitude than any fairground rollercoaster in mind, we are presented with hip-hop’s latest buzz sensation, 21-year-old Harlem rapper Azealia Banks. Bursting into the public conscience with a solitary YouTube video entitled 212.
212 was laden with brash, abrasive attitude and expletives to match, and Banks emerged from the ether full of threats and the shock tactics that have punctuated hip-hop’s ‘post-Odd Future’ world (though the credit really lies with late 80s and early 90s southern pioneers like Geto Boys, but that is a story for another time). But what was exciting about the track was the way it executed the oft-attempted stylistic melange of hip-hop and house to perfection, tiptoeing between nightclub floor-filler and street anthem. It is easy to approach every ‘hype’ act with scepticism and cynicism but the least Banks deserves is a fair trial.
The 1991 EP, Banks’ first official release, opens with the pulsing house beat of its eponymous track, which serves as an excellent first impression. With just a handful of tracks, Banks has developed a strongly recognisable and inimitable sound for herself, a rare and invaluable talent for burgeoning artists. 1991 is unmistakeably Banks, and really kicks off at the two minute mark with a synth progression and processed backing vocals vaguely reminiscent of both Paradise Garage disco and the contemporary UK bass scene, its sound owing much to the crisp production of Belgian house man Jef Martens, whose own track was used as the main sample for 212.
Banks has made no secret of her admiration for the vogue scene of her home neighbourhood of Harlem, and wears these influences on her sleeve in the six-minute Van Vogue, a tribute to the scene itself featuring a lengthy monologue revolving around street-level social commentary tacked onto the end which feels unnecessary. Warped vocal samples and dog barks are spliced in throughout, as Banks’ flow weaves around a tense techno backing. The lyrics are in effect Banks’ clarion call to the hip-hop world to sit up and take notice, but her style of bragging is somehow less cringe-worthy than many upcoming MCs who resort to blunt ‘Running the game’ and ‘Haters can’t touch me’ retorts.
212 follows, while the EP closes with Liquorice. Driven by a beat echoing UK funky and a synth sample nabbed from Lone’s Pineapple Crush, Banks is clearly well versed in the dance exploits of those across the ditch. Lyrically dealing with interracial relations, Banks constantly exudes a relaxed, almost omniscient confidence in casually tipping hip-hop’s racial perceptions on their head. Instead of approaching racial ‘equality’ by simply disparaging whites and glorifying blacks, she presents things just as they are – blurring the lines of what constitutes race and illustrating the redeeming features and foibles of all origins, making sure to also include a plethora of sexual euphemisms as is her custom.
It remains to be seen what will become of Banks in the unforgiving world of the hype artist, and whether 1991 will ultimately become a platform to greater success or remain the high watermark of a flash in the pan career. Away from the music itself, the cracks seem to be already starting to appear. Immediately after the release of the EP, Banks, a normally confrontational firebrand with a reputation for starting numerous online beefs and for whom ‘gun shy’ and ‘shrinking violet’ weren’t included in the dictionary, moved to distance herself from the ‘rapper’ tag, instead insisting on being labelled a ‘vocalist’, suggesting the self-doubt may already be creeping in. On the other hand, it could simply be a dismissal of the hip-hop scene as being stagnant or somehow beneath her, an interpretation more in-keeping with who Banks is, or at least who she presents herself as.
At the end of the day, the rabid public and mouth-frothing blogosphere owe it to Banks to place her material at the forefront and form their judgements based on the music, and from this stance smart money would be on 1991 signifying the arrival of a genuinely captivating new artist with the capacity to not only shrug off the buzz tag but tear it up, stamp on it and leave it lying broken in the dust.