[YEAR-END] Top 50 Albums of 2012 (#3) x Azealia Banks ‘Fantasea’

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Azealia Banks has had a promising rise as a female rapper/vocalist, but with a mouth and temper like hers, much more integrity is brought to the table than ever before. Off the heels of several internet demos that garnered her a deal with Polydor/Interscope records, ‘Fantasea’ stands as Banks’s first full-length release. The set contains several new songs, along with a few demos given the polished studio treatment. Without the backing of a label, Banks made a pretty noticeable name for herself via Tumblr and Twitter alone. With an actual team fully supporting her now, she’s coming for the #femcee title previously (and unfortunately) held by Nicki Minaj. Bad attitudes and #bitchfits alongside music critics (including Time Magazine) calling her the best female rapper since Lauryn Hill, ‘Fantasea’ proves that Azealia’s career has just begun to blossom.

“Out Of Space” opens the disc with a futuristic, overly confident flow that sets the tone for Azealia’s lyrical onslaught. A cover of rock band Prodigy’s song of the same name, “Space” slays on every front. It’s from this song alone that it’s clear that no other female (and possibly male) has ever brought it like this. The song even chants “I’ll take your brain to another dimension, pay close attention” repeatedly as Banks rides the futuristic beat like she’s on horseback. “Neptune” is a dancehall-inspired summer number featuring female British reggae artist Shystie. Azealia wears both the singer and rapper hats here, allowing for Shystie’s rapid fire verse to sink in, meshing perfectly with Azealia’s lush, sexy vocals. Shystie, who’s been on the indie rap scene for almost five years now, ditches her acting roots for a much more profitable industry – to great results. The production gets a somewhat aquatic twist towards Azealia’s sung verse, and gives a great sense of what her future collaborations will sound like.

“Atlantis” continues the reggaeton theme at start with a much cockier vibe, but switches into a dark, witchy #beat about halfway through. Azealia raps the same verse twice, but it’s definitely up there with one of her best of all time, officially introducing her own coined genre #witchhop. There’s no stopping Banks as the flow is so perfectly delivered, you have to wonder what other femcee today can rap like this. “You in tip-top shape / shift-shape nigga run it” raps a cool Banks as the beat literally goes off, very reminiscent of early 2000’s house music. The title track “Fantasea” is very autobiographical for Banks (similar to “1991” and “212”) as she sings about her Harlem love as her “fantasy”. Using the song’s title as wordplay, Azealia spits that fire in her own unique form and uses many metaphorical references throughout. My favorite – “burning people like fahrenheit, runnin’ the world like satellites” – may appear simple, but its lyrics like these that made me fall in love with her undeniable flow.

Produced by Diplo and DJ Master D, “Fuck Up The Fun” is the obvious but deserved jab at fellow upcoming female rapper Iggy Azalea (and TI). Banks rides the pounding, drumline inspired beat as she raps infectiously “who want, who-who want it / which nigga, little goon gettin’ stewed with the onion”) to perfection. The excessive talk of violence (“put shots in your butt like you willing to cake”) and comparisons of sex game (“don’t slip up, little nigga, I put the sun in your nut”) makes “Fun” a funny affair indeed. An older version  was released at the top of the year, but the updated studio version is also a true treat for diehard fans, as critique of the older versions surmounted for weeks upon release. “Ima Read” samples the Zebra Katz song of the same name, and its ballroom inspired nature stands at the crux of Azealia’s entire artistry. Although the song is extremely short, Banks shows her talents with remixing other artists while staying true to herself. The verse is filled with many BQ phrases (read, kiki), but still comes again off as a serious verse with many queen-like references.

“Fierce” is another heavy hitting lyrical and musical front from Banks, produced by British producer Drums of Death. Mixed in perfectly with Azealia’s bars are samples from the indie NYC ballroom film ‘Paris Is Burning’. Standing as an ode to the icons in the ballroom scene, Banks spits a lot like her gay counterparts, especially as the “work me gotdammit” theme starts another standout lyrical verse from the Harlem native. “Fierce” also goes somewhat Baltimorian towards the end, as a second layer of drums overlays her vocals – a talent not many producers still use in modern rap tracks. One of the disc’s standouts “Chips” brings more sex appeal to ‘Fantasea’, as Azealia seduces a guy with lots of money. With the proper promotion, “Chips” could be everything from a strip club staple to a potential #1 single simply because of it’s originality. Not many rappers can say (or have rapped about) her subject matter, no matter how crass (“my weave long and my pussy good”) or direct (“put your hands on my dick, take a gander with this”) it may be. The chorus is sung delicately by Banks and while slightly inaudible at parts, listening closely to the lyrics are a must here.

“Nathan” (feat. Styles P) is one of the mainstream hip hop standouts on the album. Azealia’s playful use of the Biggie coined #nathan (slang for ‘nothing’) is pure brilliance. Banks raps over the Drums of Death-produced beat as if she’s a seasoned veteran in the rap game, especially apparent through the song’s first thirty seconds. Styles P also delivers a strong verse, and apparently made very Azealia proud to feature a fellow Harlemite on the disc. “Nathan” also starts the disc’s streak of hardcore hip hop songs, a move most likely ordered by her label to prove her #streetcred among naysayers. “L8R”, a previous release, doesn’t seem as polished as some of the other Azealia reworkings, but its inclusion is still appreciated as it serves as an introduction to her lyrical abilities. Back in 2010, Banks released “L8R” followed by a ratchet ass video as one of her first unofficial releases, to great critical acclaim hindered only by its two-minute length. “L8R” was released to generate major label interest in Banks. The song’s raunchy subject matter (“I ain’t even with that dick swap, even if your switch socks”) may appear to see her as only one-note, but it’s this form of delivery that sparks the main interest in her rapping talents. The interlude after “L8R” finds Azealia and a friend calling out the “ratchet bitches”, comedically asserting that they should shout out the ratchet “people” and not just females.

“Jumanji” reps Azealia’s Harlem native and proves to be just as iconic as the Robin Williams film. The 1995 movie of the same name features a fantastical adventure ride, similar to the rapid-spitting Banks single. “Rude bitch, all day, Uptown, Broadway” she asserts, as the tropical-infused beat somehow fully encompasses her hip hop background. There’s remnants of several female rap flows here, everyone from Foxy Brown to Bahamadia, and strangely they all mold together into Azealia Banks – possibly the best female lyricist of our generation. “Aquababe” finds Azealia rapping “these public pool bitches aint really mermaids” as an ode to her newfound aquatic lifestyle. Riding a pulsing instrumental over Machinedrum’s production, Azealia doesn’t let up lyrically or delivery wise and brings forward some of her best puns to date. The arrangement is bass-heavy and also features (like “Neptune”) several aqua sound effects layering each verse. Banks speaks on fashion, her haters, and how she deals with her new fame all as if she’s been a tenured femcee. Each verse is brilliant, and segued with a beat switch that’ll blow your minds.

“Runnin'” is without question, my favorite Azealia Banks song to date. As stated before, this is one of those AB songs in which you know that no one else is rapping like her. “Bitch I plan to look this perfect / cheap little brand with a bitch that’s certain” raps Banks as the beat pays homage to some of the hardest rap songs in history. Rapping about her own history in the mean streets of New York, Azealia’s level of storytelling here is especially commendable. “Runnin'” gives Azealia street credibility, extreme lyrical points, and a promising future all in a four minute song. It may be another polished up re-release, but the final product is truly a ‘Fantasea’ standout. “US” is the last of the previously released songs on the set, but its studio version is of much better quality than the version that began floating around the internet back in early 2010. At the song’s start, Azealia raps “peace to the geese with that Karrinne” and sticks with you throughout the entire song. Her level of metaphorically using pop culture references in laughable formats is what makes each Azealia song unique. The chorus features flawless vocals from Banks as she sings about her wealth compared to that of her haters (“yall be swearing you the shit, but yall be sharing shoes and shit”) and makes me laugh out loud every time. “US” also features a chopped-and-screwed line (“you could watch the rain pour, everything is paid for”) repeated over points of interest throughout the entire track – a grandeur production act by Lunice, one of my favorite indie hip hop producers. Strangely, “US” is fairly radio-friendly, and one day I’d love to see all my friends riding with their tops down chanting her hilarious lyrics.

“Paradiso” is a sample of a pop classic by South African singer Brenda Fassie. More of an interlude, “Paradiso” is a short song with only one verse, but the quotables are numerous. “Feet sandy, look at little Bambi / in the two-piece set looking like a banji” Banks raps giving more homage to the gay culture. “Luxury” features Azealia’s trademark rap-vocal format as she delivers on both fronts with ease. The song also boasts an equally luxurious production, but unfortunately the video (shot entirely on a Harlem rooftop) is slightly cheap. Starting off with vocals, Banks finds herself competing with the game’s best singers for a second then switches to a hard verse. The chorus on “Luxury” is somewhat inaudible, requiring a Google of the lyrics to properly understand her songwriting skills. Towards the end, the bridge echoes her Interpol cover “Slow Hands” as her register is raised to add emphasis to the smooth arrangement. “Azealia Skit” is a humble thanks to her fans and team for supporting her project – short and sweet.

“Esta Noche” is the most club-ready song on the album, with a beat-switch that’s outta this world. Translated into English as “tonight” or “this evening”, Azealia cleverly samples Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonight” through the tropical first-end, while relying on house roots for the beat’s second-end. Banks raps as if she’s talking to her #boothang, commanding sexual acts and monetary gifts in exchange for her beauty. Produced by Diplo signee Munchi, “Noche” was intended for an official release, but sample clearances (read: issues) with the producer prevented the single from seeing the light of day beyond ‘Fantasea’. If “Noche” were released, I’m 100% certain it would have become Azealia’s first number one single. “Salute” samples the Dipset song of the same name, only done much better with Azealia’s witty lyrics. Aside from “Nathan”, “Salute” stands as a true hip-hop standout on the set. For someone who has been contemplating quitting the rap game for months, the track is a strong lyrical showing. My only criticism is the song’s length – at just under 1:30, “Salute” would’ve went above and beyond if she wrote enough for the entire instrumental.

Azealia-Banks-Fantasea

After just one full listen to Azealia’s unofficial release, two things are extremely clear. First, while Banks loves to use “nigga” and “bitch” in her line, it’s evident that it’s done to make you really hone in to all the other lyrics, puns, and metaphors that done include the aforementioned profanities. Azealia is using her own intelligence to push her listeners to think more deeply while engaging with her tunes. Secondly, Azealia’s lyrics are truly one in a million and she’s a (new) force to be reckoned with. For example, ‘Paris Is Burning’ has been out for nearly 20 years but Banks’s sample of the iconic gay movie not only pushed the video’s sales up by 125%, but its creative usage is unheard of today. Most artists don’t even research a sample but rather use it because it sounds good with the production. At only 21, Gemini Azealia Banks is way smarter than your favorite artist and with releases like ‘Fantasea’, she’ll also be more successful.

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