Azealia Banks is excitement personified. 212 was easily one of the top tracks of 2011, and her Coachella set, which lasted just 20 minutes and involved a good 7 or 8 minutes of professional dancing in which she didn't partake, was the most hotly anticipated of the weekend. It was good, not excellent. The most telling aspect of it was the enormous crowd and her infallible energy. It left a lasting impression. However the question was a loud and constant was she a one hit wonder?
You see, I don't want to descend in to some horrid essay where I compare her to Nicki Minaj in every way shape and form. But before Nicki, we had Missy Elliot, and before that we had the mid to late 1990s where female rappers, whilst not plentiful, were at least represented. The problem has been that since the turn of the millenium, most of those artists are struggling to make ends meet and are certainly not on the radar anymore. When 212 dropped, there was a fire in her delivery that went beyond lyrical content, an absolute must for anyone wishing to live past the age of one hit single. Azealia Banks has talent, and there have only been 3 female rappers with such a high level of said talent (Ok 4, I forgot about M.I.A.) since the days of Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim.
So Fantasea. It's a mixtape, it's a collection of songs, snippets, verses, half finished beats and ad-libs. In fact it feels for the most part like a half finished LP. This is no Massive Attack, it's an independent release. And despite the showcase of her ability to harmonise and sing on 212, these moments are rare and underprepared on Fantasea. On CHIPS she croons a chorus but doesn't belt it out, on RUNNIN' she provides limited backing vocals. On US and LUXURY she also drops the spitting for a moment, but it's never the centrepiece. Rather than outsource her hooks she just runs them herself, which is an extreme ability to have in reserve. Unfortunately the result feels cobbled together, and it produces a mash of songs that aren't defined by any huge or memorable moments. Fortunately for me, I enjoy this quite a lot. Banks has talent as an MC, she has no need to dilute this with entire songs devoted to singing, whether it be to please the mainstream pop audience, record labels, or even her own mis-guided ambition. She is best when she spits, and the more she does that the better the record is for it.
The production on this release is well above par. I spoke to someone recently who remarked that they loved the vibe on Liquorice, a track of her EP 1991, because it threw back to early 1990s hip hop, the roots of beats that were beginning to evolve from the simplistic drum and bass origins of the 1980s, but hadn't yet indulged in the orgy of synth and horns that marked the latter part of the decade. The credits read quite well, it's no in-house fruity loops job. The Prodigy were on hand for OUT OF SPACE, Diplo even dropped in for a credit, and one of my all time favourite electronic artists Machinedrum picked up 3 credits. Even AraabMuzik was featured. This spells out a clear message; that Banks had a goal and a vision and a specific sound for this record and she executed it. The entire record feels space-age and minimalist at the same time, it allows a perfect canvas for Banks to exercise herself. NEPTUNE is an other-wordly sonic experiment, FIERCE is an 808, a snare, and a bass, and yet it's the strongest beat on the album, creating this sonic sounding board for Banks to throw lyrics at. Even when it does increase in energy it still feels laid back, it's Banks and her ad-libbing friend who provide the forward motion. NATHAN is this elephant-like drum line which breaks in to a fast trot as Styles P lends his vocals. RUNNIN' actually sounds like a Lex Luger beat with the volume turned down.. and it works! Even SALUTE, a horrible dub-step number from AraabMuzik, doesn't manage to detract from the calm that Banks exudes when she is on the microphone.
It's this calm that I want to talk about. A feature of 212 and her Coachella set was this energy and emotion she was injecting in to her vocals. I expected something similar on Fantasea. What we have recieved, however, is quite the opposite. Rather than emoting via her pitch and tone, she allows her lyrics to do that leg-work for her. On FIERCE, crassness qualifies her statement: 'Cunt queen princess to the prize / Witness the baddest bitch alive'. At the end of the track her trademark wit presents itself 'Bambi work it out like fellas in a gym / Hey, fella for fella I'm better than a ten / Eleven in the din'. On NATHAN she even pips veteran Styles P for the honours, 'Ketchup / I’m hot, dog / Frankfurters, you’re Nathan / But relish hatin'. It's personality. Personality isn't essential in a great MC, have you ever had a conversation with Jay-Z? (I haven't for the record, but I've heard him speak about his music, he does drone on). It does however make the path to greatness or even just goodness a lot simpler and a lot shorter. Banks has it in spades. 'All these niggas just a little food for the dinner / And these niggas better tuck in their little jewels when I enter'. She's not a one trick pony however. On L8R, she manages 'He tricking off, cause my verse perverse / And jerking off when a bitch rehearse him / And when I lift the skirt, your nigga never gotta be coerced / To just squirt and he eats the dessert.' One key quality of an excellent MC - demolish the competition. She hasn't been challenged yet, and I think if anyone was considering it they'd have to bring their double A game. Banks is fierce.
The best track on the record is FIERCE. Banks' friend adds substance to the track with a nice ad-lib section, and comes back to provide strength for the final stanza. On L8R she introduces a new and valuable ability, that being she is able to produce a catchy and melodic chorus with no help whatsoever from her production team. 'If it ain't about a dollar imma holla at ya later' doesn't sound like much written on paper, but it's catchy as hell and nothing in the beat suggests it.
7.5/10. Great mixtape, if a little one dimensional at times. If this is a learning curve and these are the building blocks, there's a way to go, but the talent and ability is clear and present. This will keep the internet happy for a few months, but we're all hoping she is working double time on her debut LP because I think it's safe to say it'll be something special and spectacular.
Best Tracks: FIERCE, NATHAN, L8R, FANTASEA