Review Summary: Azealia doesn't give us what we were expecting, and thank goodness for that.
The new hip-hop is one defined by undefinability. From the sugar-coated pop appreciation of Nicki Minaj to the abstract murkiness of Shabazz Palaces, from the fierce traditionalism of El-P to the equally fierce work -- which can barely be called rap at all -- of Death Grips, and the hyper-aware irony of Kitty Pryde and Riff Raff, "hip-hop" as a genre is sonically expanding to the point of nearing complete meaninglessness.
Azealia Banks adequately represents this breaking of the walls, but she also radiates street cred in the same vein as the A$AP crew and Venus X. She also represents the advent of queer rap, which has finally arrived as a cultural force to be reckoned with, what with the rise of Zebra Katz, Le1f, and, of course, playfully self-appointed queen Azealia herself. The rapid-fire, effortlessly confident insults lining the now-immortal "212" practically guaranteed Banks respect from her rainbow flag-bearers, and this year's long-delayed 1991
EP further solidified that trust, but Fantasea
, the 21-year-old's sterling debut mixtape, ought to both shoot her into gay iconicity and solidify her place in the pantheon of new hip-hop and post-Tumblr pop. One of the most visible proponents of pop's recent move towards overt idiosyncrasy, Banks is also unique among that trend thanks to her natural talent. She sings like a pro, she spits rhymes as if she's been doing it since emerging from the womb, and she radiates charisma without breaking a sweat. In other words, she's the traditional total package. Yet what has made Azealia Banks fascinating to witness is her resolute refusal -- or inability -- to play the traditional hip-hop game. No strategic guest spots on big-name male rappers' tracks. No going into the studio to create and settle beef. Her undeniably cheap shot at Kreayshawn and that considerably more valid Iggy Azalea slam both took place over Twitter, traveling directly from what is evidently a brain populated by an immense deal of shit-talking. No wonder T.I. got pissed -- girl wasn't deferential enough to those whom T.I. must've considered her superiors.
And that's the thing that makes Fantasea
so exciting -- almost as thrilling as watching the "212" video for the first time. Throughout, Banks hammers one important point home: she seriously doesn't give a fuck about what you think. Doesn't matter if it's true; it makes the material incredibly rich and self-assured. She wraps herself proudly in the flags of minorities, reveling in diversity and the possibility of a pro-identity world. The noxious notion of a color-blind world is happily upturned; instead of trying to see everybody as the same, Banks asks her listeners to see individuals as such. 1991
's "Liquorice" is still the best summation of how she sees her black identity, but "Nathan", "Esta Noche", and old cuts "L8R" and "Runnin'" come close, gleefully referencing her existence as a woman of color in what is both an impressive matter-of-factness and a powerful expression of self-love. If that self-adoration irks some of the hip tastemakers responsible for bringing her up to massive Internet fame, so be it; the work is more than good enough to stand on its own, and right now there's very little rap out there that sounds like this. And yet, on such a forward-looking release, Banks opens with a blast from the past, starting the mixtape off with a version of The Prodigy's "Out of Space" that's as delirious as the original. From there, it's anything goes, a dizzying mix of sophisticated beats and a distinctly unpolished party-loving vibe. "Neptune" is breezy and deep enough for a hotel lounge (Shystie's astoundingly fired-up guest verse notwithstanding), while the pitch-perfect "Fantasea" imbues the recent footwork revivalism with a pinch of jungle, a whole lot of sexy melodicism, and a gorgeous, cyclical chord progression.
Of course, more attention is bound to be paid to the mixtape's blunter instruments: the characteristic crunchy Diplo beat backing the shit-starting "Fuck Up The Fun", the brilliant orchestral flourishes of "Jumanji", the crunky acid-hop of "Nathan". These moments most echo the in-your-face Lazy Jay track backing "212", but they're in the minority here. Which is to say that Banks adopts a more suave persona on Fantasea
than "212" suggested was possible -- a calculated move, perhaps, but an important and effective one. The unkempt and unfiltered youth of that star-making moment has, in the months since, evolved into a full-blooded entertainer possessing a rare generosity of spirit (the Mermaid Ball in New York was a cornucopia of queerness and frenzied love) and a welcome commitment to her musical and social roots. That she can remain scrappy and identifiable among the largely unabashed polish of her producers' beats is a testament to her impeccable taste, her effusive presence, and changing ideas about what signifies authenticity today. The most traditionally hip-hop track on here, "L8R", is also the weakest one, giving us a glimpse of a less unflappable Banks. Aside from that misfire, the less successful material here ("Us" and "Chips" come to mind) still bursts at the seams with promise and glimmering with invention. So those that worried Azealia Banks' open love for anything pop combined with a significantly higher budget would beget antiseptic, overly slick records can rest easy. Those that believed she'd never be embedded in that tried-and-true industry normativity can enjoy the satisfaction of being right. And those who just hoped she'd release something of quality, distinction, and continued promise can be giddily cast under Fantasea
's intoxicating, kaleidoscopic, and irrepressibly groovy spell.