When she burst onto the scene in late 2011, Azealia Banks embodied an astounding collision of opposites, seemingly blended into one superlatively streetwise package. She was fiercely aggressive, but stridently feminine. She boasted a throwback street focus with an art-school pedigree. And she was thoughtful about her fluid sexuality, though belligerent in dealing with naysayers. All this made for a compendium that, unlike the talented but docile third-wave Harlemites in the A$AP crew, went defiantly against trend.
Nearly three years later, that brief glimmer of perfection had begun to seem like a mirage, as Banks frittered away her initial hype with rumors of interminable record-company struggles, wasting energy on Twitter squabbles and petty feuds. Now she’s regained control of her own narrative in characteristic form, impetuously dropping an album that appears to have been wrested from her uncooperative record company’s hands. The resulting collection of songs feels both organically connected to her early output and disappointingly unbalanced, developing in some areas while remaining stagnant in others. Enthralling at times, marked by more surprising instances of raw skill than on any rap album this year, Broke with Expensive Taste makes good on the promise of her 1991 EP, and dispels some of the fears raised by the weird, uneven Fantasea mixtape. It’s unfocused, chaotic, and sporadically brilliant, ranging between irritating moments of woolgathering oddness and ripe, sharply delivered wordplay.
In short, it continues Banks’s habit of doing things on her own terms, which is admirable, but doesn’t make for the greatest effect in terms of crafting a coherent album. Songs like “Soda” and “Nude Beach a Go-Go” make for peculiar, perplexing asides, the former sounding like a misbegotten Janelle Monae outtake, the latter heavily sampling an Ariel Pink track. “Gimme a Chance” is a bit more logical in its sourcing, tossing in old-school DJ scratching and Latin horns, with Banks seamlessly singing in Spanish at one point, and while it’s in some ways a précis of how broadly cosmopolitan Banks’s personal vision of New York remains, this is one of the few songs where that comes across in any articulate fashion.
Such flights of fancy may be jarring, but they at least remain rooted in Banks’s own idiosyncratic identity, further deepening and expanding her distinctive approach. There are no overt hints of gimmickry or record-label kowtowing, and for the most part she further establishes herself as the most fluid and effortlessly effective female voice since Missy Elliott, with an equivalent taste for unorthodox production choices. Yet the scattered nature of Broke with Expensive Taste makes it sound like another not-quite-there mixtape; any of the directions explored here would make for an interesting basis for an album, but unfortunately none of them are pursued. This chasing of concepts and ideas makes for a too-lengthy assemblage of draft material, the frigid precision of “Ice Princess” and the thorny lyricism of “Wallace” evincing potential Banks personas that never come fully into focus.
The fact remains that a rapper usually needs guidance to become great, and while Banks’s iconoclastic aggressiveness is an important part of what makes her so intoxicating, it’s clearly led to an incomplete album being impulsively tossed off as a finished product. This means that despite the many flashes of wit and inspiration displayed here, Broke with Expensive Taste only provides brief glimpses of the singular intensity of her persona, which previously seemed fully formed, but instead has made for a fractured, fitfully fantastic effort, a reminder of the limits of attitude and unrefined talent. These missteps are epitomized by the reappearance of “212,” a now three-year-old song that belongs to a different stage of the rapper’s development. It, along with an upgraded version of Fantasea’s “Luxury” are among the best songs here, but their inclusion is distracting, representing more unpursued directions for an artist who needs to be looking toward the future, not cramming in old material on an already overstuffed album, one which feels more like a drastically updated portfolio than a proper debut.