Earlier this month, Azealia Banks randomly dropped her much-delayed album Broke With Expensive Taste; the record that many had waited nearly four years for had finally arrived. It didn’t have much of the fanfare you’d expect – most were pre-occupied with writing thinkpieces about the other Azalea, the one who had superseded her in both public awareness and success. It eventually limped into the UK charts at number 62.
Step back to 2011 and a 20-year-old Azealia had just unleashed the behemoth that is “212”, a crass and foulmouthed, yet expertly crafted, electronic pop song that won her fans in everyone from Beyoncé to Samantha Cameron.
At that point, she already had one botched record deal; she signed to XL in a development deal in 2008 off the back of some MySpace demos. According to her very public statements, that deal was a disaster with XL’s boss, Richard Russell, shelving her as soon as she was signed. Russell’s version is quite different, but then this wouldn’t be the last time Banks underwent difficulties with a record label.
"212" was lapped-up by a worldwide audience that seemingly had no issue with her genital-ruining statement of intent. Off the back of that success Azealia signed to Universal subsidiary Interscope (Polydor in the UK). From that point on things went a bit mental. Across the space of two years, her album was announced, pushed back; singles were announced and then pulled due to sample clearances; collaborations were announced and never materialized, and the album’s release pushed back again (and again).
Looking back, she probably wasn’t ready to be swept into a deal that, in theory, was about riding on the wave. Listening to the 1991 EP and the Fantasea Mixtape, she was still experimenting with genres, producers and sounds. In fact, late in 2012, Banks claimed that she eventually wanted to stop rapping as it was “very unladylike”, and that she wanted to make a “contemporary jazz” album. It all felt a bit like Universal had signed a hyperactive protégé who was still working out what she was going to be good at.
There are more examples of Azealia’s musical meandering. Joining forces with Pharrell on “ATM JAM” felt contrived, and the final product was an unfinished mess. Banks later renounced the track saying, “I didn't even like "ATM Jam" when I wrote this version, it's just what I came up with.” Likewise, she publicly dismissed Disclosure after prematurely announcing a collaboration, and this year said she wanted to punch "the ugly one" in the face. Banks wasn’t just playing musical chairs but setting them on fire after each round.
At the beginning of this year Broke With Expensive Taste was still to materialise. Taking to Twitter (of course), Banks publicly shamed her label, tweeting that she was “literally begging to be dropped”. Pleading with other labels to buy her out of her contract she said that was “tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft”, and that “they don't even know what they're listening for or to”.
It took a further five months for Banks to finally be freed from her deal, tweeting:
Ugh, now I get to be the cool indie chick I imagined I would be when I was 14!!!
— AZEALIA ⚓️ BANKS (@AZEALIABANKS) July 10, 2014
Now that Broke With Expensive Taste is here, I can sort of see where Banks was going. The sounds that she teased with her mixtapes and buzz tracks are here: the house-y beats on “Chasing Time” and the vogueish “Heavy Metal Reflective”. However, moments like “Nude Beach a Go-Go” - a collaboration with Ariel Pink - are so arbitrary and out-of-place that it’s difficult to see where she was headed with it. The repeated use of run-of-the-mill trap also seem mismatched to the kind of artist she wants to be.
Where the record excels is early on. On tracks like the pop-y “Gimme A Chance’” - with its bombastic horn section - and the jazz-licked “Desperado” - which flirts with what made Banks so exciting in the first place - her signature rapping style and husky vocals are allowed to shine. Even the inclusion of previously released tracks “212”, “Yung Rapunxel” and “Luxury” are welcome additions, and fit with what works on the record.
For me, albums do need some level of cohesion, and Banks nearly gets there with Broke With Expensive Taste although I question whether she was right to release it all as an album. Given that fans were aware the record might never see the light-of-day, Banks may have had better luck shortening the collection to eight or nine songs, giving it some focus. Instead, as it sits, it’s a sonic mess of experimental, leftfield production, bursts of vintage house music, trap and some brilliant pop hooks. The discordant nature of the project makes it feels like she should have just released, one by one, on Soundcloud.
Following the release of the album, Banks has claimed this was the record she wanted to release all along. That's a feasible but unlikely claim. Some of these songs were the beginnings of something she wanted to try out, and for these reasons I do think that Broke With Expensive Taste is sort of indicative of the past four years of trying and failing, but that doesn't mean it's what she thought she'd end up releasing.
While I’m happy that she’s finally managed to put something out, new problems now arise. Banks, although now signed to an independent label, is back where she began. Her album is out, but as a result of four years of dicking about and disputes, she still hasn’t found a place where she’s obviously comfortable. Likewise, she may be quieter on Twitter, but that hasn’t stopped her from recently bad mouthing her Azalea nemesis in a recent interview.
As we start our annual cycle of buzz artists and prediction lists, artists should remember that just because labels are panicking about signing artists on the cusp of something big, doesn't mean they have to panic about getting signed. Azealia's story should act as a warning sign to both labels and artists alike. She might have had more raw talent that any artist signed this decade - yet bad decisions and missed opportunities led to a record that fails to live up to her talent.
Follow Alim on Twitter: @alimkheraj