As Azealia Banks made clear with her explosive lead single “212,” the Harlem-born rapper isn’t the type to mope around after a breakup. Like “212,” her new album Broke with Expensive Taste is a brash, bristly thing—heavy on the sex, light on the romance. The closest thing to sentimental is a song called “Soda”—but its successor, “Chasing Time,” dries its tears and seems to say, “We’re so much better than him.”
Broke with Expensive Taste isn’t a breakup album in the traditional (Taylor) Swiftian sense. Rather, it’s a breakup album of an entirely different sort: Azealia’s kiss-off not only to Universal—a relationship that ended this summer—but also to anything and anyone who tries to put her in a box and wrap her up for a wide audience. Released with independent label Prospect Park and A&Red entirely by her, Broke is all Banks—with not a Universal fingerprint to be found.
The 16-track album is devoid of the glossiness and polish of a major-label product, and that’s part of the point. From dubstep-meets-island opener “Idle Delilah” to her abrasive, previously released “Yung Rapunxel” to the ‘6os bubblegum pop non-sequitur “Nude Beach a Go-Go” with Ariel Pink, it seems to want to be discordant. “212,” a song about oral sex, is the closest thing here to radio-friendly.
Listening to Broke, it becomes clear why this album took so long to see the light of day. It’s not because of the album’s artistry—it’s intricate, yes, but not that intricate. Instead, the delay likely came because Universal probably never would have signed off on this record—maybe because, as Banks suggested, they didn’t quite get it.
Back in January, two years after she signed to Universal and started touting Broke on Twitter, Banks started airing her grievances with the label. She called her experiences with it “hell,” adding, “I’m tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft. they don’t even know what they’re listening for or to.”
Fast-forward to July, when Banks gleefully announced that she and Universal were over. Not long after that, Banks released “Heavy Metal and Reflective”—and along with it, a video in which she’s kidnapped and roped to a chair, then escapes and is free to frolic in the desert somewhere outside Los Angeles. Because, as we already know, she isn’t one for subtlety.
Of course, Broke With Expensive Taste isn’t a reaction to all this—it’s a creation that Azealia refused to change. It succeeds in reflecting exactly what she is as an artist: weird, vulgar, and rarely meant for radio. More than anything, it’s her way of giving artists equally fed up with their major labels the audacity to say “fuck those guys.”
Sure, Azealia’s known for being a trash talker and burner of bridges; her notorious Twitter feuds and petulant beefs are, I think, irrelevant here. But she’s only the most vocal of a band of artists who have been striking back at the behemoths of the music industry. Equally enraged last year was M.I.A., who threatened to leak Matangi after Interscope Records—a subsidiary of Universal Music Group—repeatedly pushed it back because, as she said, they thought it “too positive.” Then there was Childish Gambino, who took to Twitter to beg “somebody buy me out of this contract” after he said Glass Note mishandled the release of his “Sweatpants” video.
In an age when independent artists are winning Grammys and independent labels are gaining traction, many artists look to behemoths and ask, “Why?” The artists who benefit most from the big labels are the the untouchable, well-established few whom labels know will earn them money. But for the rest, there’s a long list of artists competing for their love—and when they finally pay attention, it’s only so that they can try to change their clients.
As for Azealia, as she puts it on “Chasing Time”: “I feel like spending my nights alone.”