If we had to write a manual about how to handle precocious success and pave the way for your ascent to the heights of urban pop, we would have no choice but to take the case of Azealia Banks as an example. So far, her course is an excellent example for teaching the world how to handle becoming something like the new great hope of urban music for the masses, without dying in the attempt. Without haste or urgency - and also without being too hungry, or bowing down anxiously to the industry (or what’s left of it) - the New Yorker has managed to stay on the trail as the “next big thing” without ever losing her own unique stamp and personality, acting boldly and making the right moves. First came her leap to fame via YouTube, then her network of contacts and collaborations, then the appearance of the EP “1991” (ideal for heating people up and playing for time) and now the release of a free mixtape, “Fantasea”. Beyond its musical features, the latter also arrives with an explicit message: although she has artists the press and the industry on her side, Azealia Banks is the mistress of her career and she plans to do what she feels like, when she feels like doing it.
“Fantasea” can’t be taken as a reliable clue about what her debut album will be like, or more importantly, its musical outline. Its impulsive, random nature isn’t significant or indicative of the sound she’ll have, but it does imply a hopeful declaration of the singer’s intentions. It’s as if she wants to show the world, especially those who see her as a prefabricated product or one with an expiration date, that she is a restless artist with criteria, taste, and a desire to jump right in. Furthermore, that anything that people might say about her or expect of her just slides right off her back. The selection of producers indicates this, and therefore the selection of beats and sounds that form a part of the mixtape: an explosive hodgepodge of some of the musical connections that have dominated street action radio in recent years, both in the United States and England. It even includes a nod to the early-90s electronic scene with that one-of-a-kind version of The Prodigy’s “Out Of Space”, which implies an unexpected wave of raver nostalgia that works better than could be foreseen or imagined.
Banks reclaims some old songs and mixes them with a selection of new material that she herself has defined as a compilation of ideas and experiments. The freedom of movement that the mixtape format always brings with it is the vocalist’s best ally, and she surrounds herself with renowned producers – Diplo and Ikonika at the head – as well as unknowns, to give free rein to her musical impulses. “Fantasea” isn’t a testing ground for her debut album, as it’s hard to imagine that her major-label debut would have such an eclectic array of disparate ideas, and such an undefined discourse. But it is one for her personally, and she takes her chances with almost anything: Southern rap, low-intensity house, electro-pop, grime (“Fuck Up The Fun” and “Neptune”, with Shystie!), post-dubstep (the title song, for example) and acid-pop, among other sound derivations that stick their noses out in an album that doesn’t want to be one. This is an exercise of tests and trials, but with the additional factor that she herself wanted to make it public. The irregularity of the results, which is apparent in some cuts that look a lot like a sketch to be defined, is much less important than the very real, vivid feeling of witnessing another step in the growth of a star with more personality and guts than many of us would have imagined.