Many musical artists broke into the industry last year. Adele became the biggest artist on the radio, while Frank Ocean’s
“Nostalgia, Ultra” mix tape made him the biggest hit with critics. Foster the People had a huge hit with a song about shooting hipsters, Cee-Lo Green had a huge song with a lame censored version of his brilliant angry love song (it’s not really called “Forget You”) and tUnE-yArDs went from being a modest critical success to topping the Pazz & Jop critics poll.
But, even with all that, the biggest breakthrough of 2011 was a young Harlem woman named Azealia Banks standing in front of a brick wall, threatening to ruin you.
Banks’ “212” was the best song of last year not because of the words it used (one of which was more notable than the rest—look it up), but because of how it used them. Without the house music beat, it would be an impressive dirty rap song. Without the dirty rap lyrics, it would be an enjoyable electro-house song. But what makes “212” an instant-classic is the fact that it had both, and the combination of the two made it the kind of masterpiece that usually only comes once or twice a year (in 2011’s case, only once). While 30,000,000 YouTube viewers can most certainly be wrong, in Azealia Banks’ case, they made a good choice.
A successful single is generally followed with a quickly released album intended to profit off the song’s success. Banks, however, was smart enough not to rush one. Instead, she released an EP, a mix tape and announced her first LP would be released February 2013.
The EP, “1991,” opens with the title track. This song showcases the same house production that defined the single but, unlike “212,” Banks really holds back on this opener. She lets the production speak for itself, and as a result “1991” is a very restrained song, in a positive way.
The entire EP is defined by its subtleness. The only time it really cuts loose is, of course, on “212.” This makes sense. On the single, Banks introduced herself in as big a way as she possibly could without it seeming ridiculous. If she’d continued going in that direction, it might have gotten stale. So, rather than try to go for another “212,” she has upped the production, made the hooks less obvious and avoided trying to shock people.
Of course, the hooks are still there on every track. “Bang, pop pop, this thing go pow” really sticks out on “Van Vogue,” as does the “N.Y. rose me, most high chose me” refrain on “1991.” None of these are as in-your-face as the “Ayo, I heard you’re riding with the same tall, tall tale” breakdown on “212,” but they’re obvious enough that every song seems substantial.
The only flaw with “1991” is its length. EPs are short by definition, but “1991” pushes it. Two of its sixteen minutes are given to a skit at the end of “Van Vogue” that, while funny, takes up too much time. It would have been better if Banks had removed the skit from the song and maybe included it in an extended version on her LP.
The skit is a pretty big flaw when listening to the EP as a whole but, if you don’t focus on it too much, it doesn’t really matter. This is a very good record without a bad track. If Banks had tried to top her masterpiece, “1991” might have seemed desperate. Instead, it shows a different side of her that proves she has the potential to change music. Just give her time (preferably an hour, minus skits).