Whatever Azealia Banks does, she does it in all caps. A year and a half ago, the 24-year-old New York MC slung what was once meant to be her major-label debut onto Twitter without warning, issuing Broke With Expensive Taste on her own terms after a messy split from Universal Music Group. Now that she’s free of her contract, she returns with Slay-Z, her most focused work to date.
Broke With Expensive Taste and Banks’s 2012 tape Fantasea were both genre-busting playgrounds, sprawling and open enough for her to tease experimental facets of her voice. She’s since honed her hooks and her lyrics, condensing the space she needs to execute the most powerful tricks she’s got in her songwriting arsenal. Slay-Z is a tapered dart of dance-pop, trance, and house stitched together under Banks’s sharp-toothed bars. It’s eight tracks and 27 minutes long, with no filler and no space for messing around.
Banks’s music has always hit somewhere between a smirking leer and a plea for empathy. There’s menace and intent in the way she carves out her syllables when she raps, and vulnerability in how she sings. Slay-Z doles out both emotional extremes in abundance, offering the boot-stomping, no-fucks-given “Skylar Diggins” alongside the melancholy trance cut “Used to Being Alone.” “How does it feel to treat me the way you do?” Banks whispers while the beats swell, bringing the album’s emotional peak.
Whether lashing out or nursing her own wounds, Banks places her emotional core on the dance floor, the site where individual boundaries slip and NSA intimacy becomes possible. Despite their ferocity, most of her songs have historically been too heady to work as proper club music without a remix assist. Banks used to rap from inside a layer of self-protective irony, lacing jokes and absurdity into her whirlwind tracks. While Slay-Z is often earnestly bitter, Banks rafts it on joy, giving into her purest pop instincts without reservation.
None of this would work if Banks didn’t come armed with a slew of infectious melodies and biting beats assisted by producers like emerging New York duo Fame School and Canadian innovator Kaytranada. Banks picks collaborators who push her music to its extreme edges – and her edges are nothing if not extreme. The rapper routinely comes under fire for offenses that range from defending Bill Cosby, supporting Trump, and flinging anti-gay slurs to calling for the rape of Sarah Palin to allegedly committing assault; her social media presence adds another contentious layer to the portrait we can extract from her music of who she is as a real, flesh-and-blood artist. But Slay-Z is bigger than Banks herself. Her music is inextricable from its origin, but it also encompasses far more than the persona she flaunts online. On Twitter, she flippantly alienates even her most die-hard stans; yet on Slay-Z she opens herself up to us candidly, lays bare her wounds, and invites us to inspect them. She’s the opposite of a media-hardened rapper like Eminem, who saves his harshest words for the mic. Banks lets the venom out on her own time; her music is for sharing her power, not brandishing it.
She amplifies that dynamic on the mixtape’s centerpiece, “The Big Big Beat,” a masterwork of thick Chicago house bass and stuttering samples tangled up with her New York bars. She knows what you think of her, but she's not letting that stop her. “Here comes the big bad witch on the big big beat,” she raps. Go along for the ride or don’t. You can’t touch her either way.