It’s easy (and kind of fun) to speculate Azealia Banks’s possible influences – Santigold, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes, to name a few — but comparing the origins of her style to her style itself is a completely different task. Listening to Fantasea, her latest mixtape, only complicates this task even further.
Because it’s Azealia Banks, the complication begins before the mixtape even starts. The mixtape is labeled “witch-hop.” What is witch-hop, you ask? Good question. It is related to witch house? Probably not? Actually, no, not at all. “Witch-hop” is just a clever way for Azealia to say that she’s in her own lane. A lot of people disagree. In fact, her recent show at the Fonda Theater, which featured performances by Rye Rye, Charli XCX and Maluca, might have proven those naysayers right. Banks shares similarities with all those artists, from style to audience to production preferences, and these similarities really show when you line ’em all up. But it simultaneously highlights their differences. These talented chicks are definitely on the same highway, but they have different vehicles, different destinations and some of them love to switch lanes.
On Fantasea, Banks switches lanes frequently and abruptly. This dynamism is both the mixtape’s primary strength and its primary weakness. “L8R” is an older track and it shows. The allegro staccato flow, the vulgarity and even the machinedrum production are all present, but Azealia’s audacious arrogance is noticeably absent. “L8R” was definitely a shocker when it came out two years ago, but when juxtaposed with the other songs on the mixtape, it’s feeble in comparison. The Banks on “L8R” is rapping and she’s rapping well, but that’s it: there’s no swag. The same goes for the “Salute.” Choosing to rap over the Araabmuzik instrumental that reunited Dipset, Harlem’s most [in]famous rap group, you’d expect Banks to own the track. Instead, strangely using the hashtag flow at an unusually slower pace, she just sounds uncomfortable.
This discomfort appears nowhere else on the mixtape. In fact, despite her failure to live up to the epic-ness of the original “Salute,” on the Hudson Mohawke produced “Jumanji,” Banks sounds like she’s auditioning for Dipset: “This is that jammer, jammer / Go Anthem-Banana-Getter / You got a question, I’ll answer / For llama mama I’m better.” Slightly cartoonish internal rhymes are Cam’ron’s claim to fame, yet Azealia not only wields them comfortably, but makes them danceable. Killa Cam himself couldn’t do that. On “Nathan,” Banks raps adjacent to LOX legend Styles P. It feels like it should be an uncomfortable collaboration, but the combination of the old and the new is seamless and extraordinary. Banks’ rapping is at its zenith on the “Fuck Up the Fun.” Talking shit and overwhelmingly backing it up, Banks nonchalantly floats over the militant Diplo instrumental like she actually is a witch.
While “Jumanji,” “Nathan” and “Fuck Up the Fun” prove that Banks can rap (not to say that there wasn’t already plenty of evidence), she really shines on tracks like “Chips,” “Luxury” and “Fierce,” songs that further showcase the vogue aesthetic she crafted for 1991. The synergy between the dance-ready house beats and her flamboyant vocals and arrogant verses is truly one of a kind. “Luxury” in particular stands out. Here, Banks showcases her vocals more than ever before. She’s not some female rapper who forces herself to sing because she’s a woman. She can actually sing.
Between the street tracks and the house tracks lie the “aquatic” tracks (nonsense talk for “experimental”). None of these tracks are as subpar as “L8R” or “Salute,” but they are characterized by very strange experimentation. These are probably the ones Banks had in mind when she tweeted, “I tried a lot of cool things.” “Tried” is the operative word in that tweet — trying doesn’t always result in success. On “Neptune” Banks retries the “212” flow and juxtaposes it with softer vocals, a guest feature and a way more melodic instrumental. She succeeds. In contrast, on “Us” Banks tries out a slower flow and melds it with faster-than-normal vocals. She fails. The song is a bloated, dissonant track with bridges, verses and a chorus that are all completely uncomplimentary. Listening to “Us” is kind of like being at a live performance where the feature, the backup singers and the audience all sing different versions of the same song. Awkward.
All in all, Fantasea further demonstrates that Azealia Banks is a woman of many talents. It is a great follow-up to 1991 that shows her versatility, a worthy interlude until her full LP. It will allow her to see what works and what doesn’t. If she doesn’t quit rap in the meantime, her debut album could be fierce.
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