Album Review: Azealia Banks Surprises on 'Broke With Expensive Taste'

Liking a project by someone as divisive as rapper Azealia Banks presents its own challenge: separating the artist from the art. Since beguiling listeners with her X-rated firestarter "212" in 2011, the Harlem, N.Y. native quickly dimmed her buzz with a spattering of public feuds that painted her as little more than a bratty antagonist. Her output slowed to a trickle. Interscope, which signed her shortly after her single broke out (and dropped her this past July), released her '90s-inflected 1991 EP in May 2012, while her seapunk-flavored Fantasea mixtape arrived two months later. Banks has been mostly musically silent since then (the same can't be said for her salty social media presence), save for a few leaked cuts that kept the stove hot for her consistently delayed debut Broke With Expensive Taste, which she surprise-dropped Beyoncé-style on Nov. 6.

The alliterative bombast of "212" can be found on Broke, as can the track itself, plus six other previously released songs. Never mind that nearly half the cuts have already been heard: the LP is an exhilarating, albeit challenging, body of work, one that stands entirely apart from the controversy surrounding the figure behind it. Over time, Banks has chiseled her sound from explosive house-rap to a more murky and industrial space, one that funnels touchstones from U.K. garage, velvet R&B and drum-and-bass. At a turn, she'll lyrically pummel a cling-clang beat ("Desperado") and then just as quickly—and adeptly—adapt to the cadence of trap-rap ("Ice Princess").

The missteps are few, but grave: on "Gimme a Chance," she transitions from bouncy rap to full-blown salsa, complete with Spanish singing, while the retro surf-pop of the Ariel Pink-produced "Nude Beach a Go-Go" confounds. And yet, both merely amplify how creatively combative Banks can be—especially when she focuses that energy into her music.