There are many ways one could greet the arrival of rapper-singer Azealia Banks’ long-gestating debut album, “Broke With Expensive Taste.” It’s tempting to be wry, to note the long wait, the overblown expectations that have accompanied the pending release of this promising brash, bouncy album.
One could belabor the Harlem-raised artist’s missed opportunities: A version of “Broke ...” was to be released on heavy-hitter Interscope at least a year ago, while Banks, 23, was surfing a wave of hype after she dropped the joyous 2011 New York anthem “212,” a bunch of wild remixes and, in early 2013, “Yung Rapunxel.” The musician, sharp-tongued and smart, seemed on the verge of challenging Nicki Minaj’s queen-of-the-game throne — and it didn’t hurt that she had a mouth as ridiculously quotable as Kanye West’s.
We’ve had a long time to ponder. The weeks turned to months, and tracks dripped out as Banks gained outsize fame on her Twitter account. In place of lyrics, it seemed, she was spitting invectives via thousands of social media posts. She publicly beefed with artists including T.I., Lady Gaga, Iggy Azalea, Pharrell and Minaj. Her defense to critics came via — where else? — Twitter. “It’s a shame that being a woman has gotten me in trouble for all the same things my male counterparts have done,” she wrote.
All the while, she reminded us in simmering tracks such as “BBD” and “Luxury” that for all the bluster — the kind that grows tiresome regardless of gender — a ridiculously eloquent voice lay beneath.
Which leads to the most valid way to greet the arrival of “Broke” amid the inflated (then deflated, then reinflated) expectations: as a seriously considered debut album from a versatile artist in love with dance-floor polyrhythms, language and ideas — empowerment, temptation, the cultural gulf separating Harlem and Manhattan — one whose promise permeates her phrasing and whose delivery can move from liquid rap to raspy croon on the turn of a measure. In short, “Broke” is worth the wait and, in a just world, should silence doubters.
Thunder cracks, dogs bark, sea gulls scream throughout the record as Banks delivers a virtual one-woman showcase of both her verbal ability and taste in producers. Though a few tracks are too long, the record is rich with variety (what a grump might call “unfocused”), introducing a voice that’s much more nuanced and thoughtful than many of her more outrageous tweets might suggest.
Banks has released this slate-cleaning debut independently after a very public parting with Interscope. The 16-track album features a mix of now-dusty songs woven with more recent bangers. Taken as a whole — and heard loudly and with great focus — it confirms Banks’ promise, and her great reflexes in collaboration.
“Wallace” hits with so much frantic bottom end and mid-range that the sibilant hiss arriving every 16 bars sizzles like a sparkler. “He was on her Twitter, but he never got followed,” she raps in insult as a particularly odd rhythm throbs within a record filled with them. The wonderfully titled “Heavy Metal and Reflective” opens with the rev of a muffler-less engine that, once in motion, quickly becomes a tornado of microsamples swirling at a frantic 172 beats-per-minute.
The record’s closing three songs are also the strangest and suggest an artist way too young and inspired for a flaky social media public to dismiss so early in her artistic life. “Nude Beach A-Go-Go,” an infectious pop song produced by Los Angeles artist-musician Ariel Pink, is a joyous off-balance romp featuring Banks and Pink gunning for AM pop radio ubiquity. (The song’s also on Pink’s forthcoming “pom pom.”)
To close, Banks harnesses the Berlin-inspired tones of electronic producer Lone, yet another series of curves in a record filled with them. “Miss Amor” sounds forged from the world’s shiniest chrome. “Miss Camaraderie” is a pure house banger that recalls everything from post-rave club innovators Technotronic and Deee-Lite to frantic Chicago house music.
It’s a courageous way to close her debut. But Banks long ago proved her unflinching bravery, one that will no doubt serve her well.
“Broke With Expensive Taste”
Azealia Banks / Prospect Park
Three stars out of four