Azealia Banks’ “Broke with Expensive Taste

homepage_large-de7eef66Among the diverse palette of female hip hop artists, 23-year-old Harlem native Azealia Banks is the cream of the crop. Though she may not be as well-known as megastars Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj, Banks embodies the grittiness, conviction, and prowess of a female rapper and then some. Having received critical acclaim for her stellar bouncy jam “212,” Banks was already a top-selling artist in the making. Vulgar yet charismatic, Banks personifies the ethos of American culture and feminism in hip hop through her crafty lyrics and experimental production. She can also sing just as well as she can rap, especially on her cover songs for indie bands The Strokes and Interpol.

In the peak of her career in 2012, Banks announced her debut studio record Broke with Expensive Taste. However, due to several conflicts with her label Interscope Records, Broke with Expensive Taste was delayed indefinitely. Despite this setback, Banks strayed from obscurity, releasing two EPs (1991 and Fantasea) and a string of singles to keep her afloat in the midst of her album’s dormancy. Now, after two long years,  Broke with Expensive Taste was finally made available to the public through an unexpected surprise announcement a la Beyoncé. It’s safe to say that even with a lack of continuity, Banks still brings a lot to the table.

When listening to Broke with Expensive Taste, it’s crazy to think that the works of rappers such as Azalea and Minaj are much more commercially successful than Banks. When juxtaposed, Broke with Expensive Taste is more potent, intricate, and ripe than anything Iggy or Nicki have ever made, even with their breakthrough songs “Fancy” and “Super Bass,” respectively. Bolstered by a relentless energy and a distinct sound, Broke with Expensive Taste does itself justice as a bravura debut from Azealia Banks.

Even though old tracks appear on the album, such as “212” and Fantasea’s “Luxury,” Banks maintains a freshness that is undoubtedly commendable. Using a variety of genres, Banks gets aggressive on the hardcore, witch-hop jam “Yung Rapunxel,” seductive on the murky “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” and funky on the trap-tinged “BBD.” Even on atypical tracks, such as the EDM-hip-hop jingle “Ice Princess,” the house-infused “Chasing Time,” and the glitchy groove “Soda,” Banks’ slick rat-tats and vocal ability are uncanny. She effectively blends themes of love and self-empowerment into a whirlwind of colorful synths and wobbling bass.

On Broke with Expensive Taste, Banks is also able to morph from her darker, brasher self into a much more lighthearted persona one song after the other. Following the tropical opener “Idle Delilah” and the enchanting “Gimme a Chance,” she shifts from her innocuous falsetto to her uniquely smooth rapping on the mysterious “Desperado” and the edgy “JFK.” But towards the end, she makes another abrupt turn on the unabashedly silly “Nude Beach a Go-Go.” Though brief and peculiar, “Nude Beach a Go-Go” is one of the album’s most likable songs, as art pop musician Ariel Pink’s production invigorates Banks’ sweet croon. Despite its stark contrast to the rest of the album, “Nude Beach a Go-Go” is a fair reminder that Banks doesn’t take herself too seriously, making the song a breath of fresh air from a bold and dynamic album.

Overall, Broke with Expensive Taste proves that Azealia Banks is a natural when it comes to hip hop. But, although she may be musically adept, her ego and irreverent behavior has caused several online tirades to erupt with other celebrities, from Perez Hilton to Disclosure to Eminem. Regardless of her antics, Broke with Expensive Taste clearly cements Banks as a potential superstar and if all goes well, she could shatter mainstream barriers.

Grade: A

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Run the Jewels’ “RTJ2”

Every once in a while, a hip hop duo emerges from the depths of the indie music world and becomes the hottest mainstream sensation in America. In the early 2000s, the universe was graced by the presence of Outkast, the ubiquitous rap duo known primarily for their last record Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and their number #1 hit, “Hey Ya!,” even though they started their career in the 1990s. In 2012, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who had been active since 2003, achieved their pop stardom with their successful debut The Heist. What made these hip hop artists so popular were not just their catchy tunes or their commercial output, but the strength of their huge underground fanbases. Sometimes, even with a previous venture in music, artists might need to try again in order to attain popularity. Fortunately, for Atlanta-based rappers Killer Mike and El-P, also known together as Run the Jewels, their much-deserved limelight may be approaching soon.

After seeing Run the Jewels in action at the FYF Fest last August, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people showed up at their stage. For the few minutes I was there, I witnessed fans clash, mosh, and sing along to Killer Mike and El-P’s provocative lyrics. Although Run the Jewels is a much more recent project, Killer Mike and El-P’s solo work spans over a decade. Killer Mike released six albums and producer/rapper El-P released two before their first collaboration in 2012. As executive producer on Mike’s seventh record R.A.P. Music, El-P amplified Killer Mike’s bold verses and fast-paced flow with vibrant, slick beats, winning both artists praise from critics. Coincidentally, El-P’s third album Cancer 4 Cure was released the same year and also scored some points for his energetic production and prolific rapping skills. Together, Killer Mike and El-P proved to be an unstoppable pair on their first official collaborative record Run the Jewels last year. While it achieved acclaim from most music critics, its mixtape format limited the duo from being recognized by the rest of the hip hop crowd. Nevertheless, Killer Mike and El-P continue to show formidable work ethic with their sophomore effort Run the Jewels 2.

As an audacious and explicit lyricist, Killer Mike makes the first move on RJT2’s intense opener “Jeopardy” with his fervid, hilarious remark on how awesome the album is going to be. After a few minutes of woozy synths and deft wordplay from the two rappers, the album goes into hyperspeed with the jittery “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” in which Killer Mike and El-P continue to preach about their supreme vocal and instrumental dexterity. Even with their shameless arrogance, Run the Jewels 2 shows that the duo have just as much cred, skill, and creativity as Kanye West and Jay-Z. Just watch Killer Mike explain how to write a rap song (it’s mesmerizing).

Throughout the rest of the album, Run the Jewels manages to maintain the listener’s attention, be it on the intensely gritty “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” the poppy “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” and the frenetic “All Due Respect.” However, both Killer Mike and El-P bring their A-game as music collaborators and political rhetoricians onRTJ2’s best track, “Early.” Blending an electro-pop beat with rock musician Boots’ falsetto, “Early” is a powerfully evocative song strengthened by Killer Mike and El-P’s emotionally resonant statements about current issues of police corruption and brutality. The tenacity of their stunning rants shows exactly how much social consciousness these two have acquired. “Early” is the anthem our country needs right now, especially after the events that occurred in Ferguson.

What I admire most about Run the Jewels is not just the clever rhymes, multifaceted production, or relentless and captivating energy. As a hip hop duo living in a heterogeneous, social media-obsessed generation of music listeners, the best thing going for Killer Mike and El-P is that they know how to take risks and make people listen. On Run The Jewels 2, not only do their rap prowesses shine, but so does their passion for making hip hop both culturally and socially relevant. If Killer Mike and El-P keep up the good work, their music may truly landmark them as two of hip hop’s greatest musicians.

Grade: A-

Watch Run the Jewels kill it with “Early” on their television debut on David Letterman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dqGLhW3VVA