Three years ago, the New York MC Azealia Banks jolted the music Internet with “212,” a boastful, pummeling track on which Banks delighted in her foul-mouthedness as much as she did in her verbal dexterity. She traded off matter-of-factly confrontational verses with stretches where she treated vowels like playgrounds. Her speaker-melting bravado — not to mention the music, culled from “Float My Boat” by the Belgian DJ Lazy Jay — caused the track to sneak on critics’ year-end lists.
A couple of months later, Banks announced that her debut, “Broke With Expensive Taste,” would come out in the fall of 2012 on a subsidiary of Universal. Thus began a series of events in which Banks navigated the complex space between musician, celebrity, and provocateur that’s opened up in the always-on media age: 2012 was productive for her, music-wise, as she released an EP and threw splashy “Mermaid Balls” around the world.
But as time wore on, it looked like Banks had become another casualty of a major label suddenly worried about the long-term viability of a one-time trending topic — particularly since she garnered more headlines for throwing out homophobic insults, and tussling publicly with the likes of Lily Allen and T.I., than for any songs she had released.
In July, Banks announced that she and her label had parted ways. And without warning on Thursday, she told the world via Twitter that, some two years after it was initially slated to appear, “Broke With Expensive Taste” was finally available, released via a partnership with the independent label Prospect Park.
Any record with so much build-up should be bound for the coulda-shoulda-woulda-files, but “Broke” is a happy surprise. It’s feisty and forward-thinking, showcasing Banks’s ability to crate-dig for solid beats and her malleable voice, the range of which is as amenable to braggadocio-filled disses as it is to depth-plumbing belting.
For an album that’s seemingly been in turnaround for so long, “Broke” sounds very much of the moment. Tracks like the menacing “Heavy Metal and Reflective” bring to mind the spaced-out work of 2014 hip-hop producer of choice DJ Mustard, only more vital-sounding; where Mustard’s aesthetic involves slowing down the spindly dance tracks proffered by ’90s club hits to a particularly hedonistic sleepwalk, Banks hyperactivates them, yet makes them sound more brooding.
A few of Banks’s post-“212” tiffs were with artists who she fell out with at some point during their collaborative process — Pharrell, the British duo Disclosure, Lady Gaga — which makes it all the more striking that “Broke” shines in part because of Banks’s knack for cherry-picking her collaborators. The hip-hop alchemist Theophilus London shows up for a verse on the club fever dream “JFK,” and the hotly tipped producer AraabMuzik gives a chilly twinkle to “Ice Princess.” And “Nude Beach a Go-Go,” on which Banks sings goofily over a spit-shined track by the also-controversial retro-popist Ariel Pink, sounds like she’s mugging for a ’60s beach comedy’s opening credits.
That cut breaks the album’s mood in an odd way, but it also sets up the big finish: Two collaborations with British techno auteur Matt Cutler, who works as Loné. His coiled-spring, retro-futuristic take on electronic music melds well with Banks’s fluid rhyming and, on the heart-opening “Miss Camaraderie,” cautious optimism. Placing that track at the album’s end, one hopes, is a signal that Banks will not just keep pushing forward, but also use her own music to drown out any distractions.Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @maura.