Azealia Banks – 1991 [EP]
On the strength of her excellent, kinetic 2011 single, “212,” as well as handful of lesser-known songs, 21-year-old Harlem-based rapper Azealia Banks became one of the year’s most buzzed-about artists on hip-hop and underground music blogs. This blinding hype immediately earned her attention from major rappers and labels alike, virtually ensuring her mainstream recognition. So with one foot in the door to the big leagues, Banks hopes to make a big entrance with her much-delayed EP (and first official release), 1991. Wisely acting as both a sampler for the uninitiated and a teaser for her first album, half of this four-track teacher is made up of pre-released material, just professionally remixed and retooled. (“Liquorice” gets a cleaner, fuller production, for example; “212” retains its high-quality recording from its single release.) The first two songs, though, “1991” and “Van Vogue,” are brand new, and they suggest that Banks’ flirtation with dance music will only escalate. The title 1991 may refer to the year she was born, but with all the four-on-the-floor beats, retro synths and clipped R&B vocal samples, the production on these tracks directly recalls that bygone era, where house and new jack reigned supreme and 808 State slotted into a nightclub’s regular rotation. That being said, this is still a hip-hop record, not a DJ set, and Azealia’s exuberant, profane rapping (and the occasional soulful vocal) fill these songs with a liveliness and recklessness that many of her peers lack. While her monosyllabic and onomatopoeic rhymes are often chosen in service of the rhythm, there’s a fair share of clever boasts, put-downs and come-ons to warrant close listening, especially on “212” and the title track. Comparisons, contrasts and feuds (real or fabricated) with Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim aside, it’s also just refreshing to hear another talented female rapper take to the mic, when, even in 2012, there are remarkably few. This EP may have more style than substance, but oh! what style it is. Though nothing else is as instantly grabbing as “212”—and that spoken-word interlude goes on way too long—just about everything here hints at bigger and better things to come from Ms. Banks, and 1991 certainly whets the appetite for a full-length album.