Why Azealia Banks Is The Femcee To Watch

Hey readers! I’m music writer Sam Lansky, and this is “Pop Think,” where we dive deep into the murky waters of the pop ocean in search of musical pearls. See how embarrassingly clumsy that metaphor was? Well, it’s a great contrast to the brilliant and agile wordplay of the rapstress Azealia Banks, who blew up late last year with her viral smash “212″ and is now poised to continue riding the wave of success with her new EP, 1991. (It’s the year she was born, y’all!)

See, in a chart landscape hyper-saturated with homogenous pop, Azealia Banks is doing something different: Both with the nasty ’90s vibe of her beats and lyrics that are so quick and smart they make your head spin, including a level of social commentary that’s incisive and timely. While the femcee game continues to get increasingly crowded, and vicious, Azealia stands out — and this week, I’m digging into why she’s truly the rapstress to watch.

Azealia Banks’ EP 1991 is a big deal, you guys. Here’s why.

In the outro for Azealia Banks’ new song “Van Vogue,” the Harlem-based rapper talks for two minutes in a low, pitch-modified growl. “Yo, yo, yo. These bottom-ass b****es with these raggedy-ass shoes. I see you, b****. With your Pell Grant refund, I see you coming out of NYU. Spitting that refund check, getting fly rainbows and s***. Trying to come out of Forever 21 stunting on me. Don’t want to see none of your Whole Foods.” It’s a superbly weird moment, but one that nicely encapsulates so much of what makes Azealia Banks so interesting: The pop culture references littered throughout her lyrics are relevant to the “Girls” demographic. She’s contempt for assimilation in girlish pigtails and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, and the whole EP is rich with that tension.

Read more about Azealia Banks and her 1991 EP after the jump.

Of course, that wouldn’t mean much if the music itself wasn’t as well-crafted as anything else in the game, and fortunately, it is. The beats are pounding or skittering, evoking the house jams of the early ’90s (before Azealia had even been born yet, which makes me feel really old); it’s a definite throwback, but one that somehow manages to sound more modern than her contemporary counterparts, like you just know that it’s going to age better than the explosive hip-pop that’s currently dominating sound waves. That’s not to say that the modern femcees don’t still have game, because of course, they do: Nicki Minaj‘s evolution from a zany chick from Queens to the rap-pop superstar that she’s become is evidence of her grind and expert understanding of the artistic landscape, and the original chicks like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, when they eke out a release, still impress.

But listening to Azealia’s rhymes, with an unmatched verbal dexterity and cleverness that requires a serious examination of Rap Genius to figure out exactly what she’s saying, I can’t help but feel excited. Rarely, if ever, has the wild vulgarity of femcees past been matched with the level of consciousness about identity politics and race relations that Azealia drops with seeming casualness. It’s radically, and aggressively, of-the-moment. And Azealia knows it, too. It’s become an expected trope in hip-hop to posture about the artist’s supremacy over her competition, a level of me-vs.-you swagger that listeners know to look for. But as the new kid on the block, Azealia already has a level of certitude about how she’s the one on top. In “Van Vogue,” she spits, “In that you been did that, you been with that, you been-been that b****/But they all forget you when I spin this s***.” And she’s right. 1991 is one of the most exciting releases in a long time, and it marks Azealia’s arrival as the one to watch in the rap game.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.