Thursday, September 6, 2012

Deconstructing "1991" - Azealia Banks' Autobiographical Homage to the 90s

Azealia Banks has been the buzz of the hip hop world following the release of her thrilling single "212" last December and a star-making US debut performance at this year's Coachella music festival, and now she has millions watching to see what she'll do when she makes her official full-length debut. This debut keeps getting pushed further and further, though fortunately we did get an official EP, 1991, in May (read Popologist Panel reviews), and a mixtape, Fantasea, in July, to tide us over as she hammers it out at Interscope. Included on 1991 alongside "212" were the previously released "Liquorice;" "Van Vogue," with its lengthy, stinging diatribe outro; and the sleek, elegant "1991," whose classic house beat and old-school R&B flavorings evoked some of the great music from the 90s you don't hear much these days. Videos for "Liquorice" and "Van Vogue," both directed by fashion photographer Rankin, were released over summer, but it was a bit of a surprise when Banks debuted the music video for "1991" over Labor Day weekend, since the track doesn't receive as much attention as its more bombastic siblings.


"1991," appropriately, is a compendium of references to 1990s-era pop, R&B and dance videos; Banks tweeted to fans that she was "channeling Madonna, Crystal Waters, and Aaliyah" in the clip. The references aren't just playing off a trendy aesthetic, though: there's a great deal of meaning packed into this seemingly breezy affair. Not an expert on early 90s hip-house, R&B music videos, and pop aesthetics? Never fear; I'll lay it down for you. Read on for a closer look at the references Azealia Banks and director Justin Mitchell have drawn on for their sleek, glamorous, and very clever homage to some of the artists and visual and musical styles that have had an influence on the young Harlem rapper whose potential, at this point, is as fascinating as her already impressive early work thus far.
(Scroll to the bottom or click here if you wish to watch the video before we begin.)

Aaliyah - "If Your Girl Only Knew" (1996) / "We Need a Resolution" (2001)

Azealia Banks draws from the beloved 90s R&B icon, who died in a plane crash at age 22, in 2001, more in her general style (particularly that of the 1996 video "If Your Girl Only Knew") than with specific visual references, excepting a few shots from the sexy 2001 video for "We Need a Resolution" (in which, incidentally, she actually beat Britney Spears to the shoulder snake punch, by about six months). Aaliyah's legacy is akin to that of the early Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe; both began their careers at an early age (Aaliyah was fourteen when she made her appropriately named debut with Age Ain't Nothing But a Number) but died in accidents at a young age, just as their talents and careers were beginning to take off. Most significantly, both had achieved such greatness at such young ages that speculation has often been that, had they lived, they might have ended up as among the greatest artists of all time.





Madonna - "Vogue" (1990) / "Rain" (1993)

The Madonna references in "1991" come from a pair of music videos from around the year in the title. A few people have faulted Banks for a dramaturgical error for its references to "Vogue," which they described as "1989-Madonna" (the video for "Vogue" actually premiered in 1990). But even as "Vogue" was a sort of farewell to the 1980s and waved back at the 1970s disco scene, Madonna maintained much of her look and style from "Vogue" through the Erotica period of 1992-93. Azealia Banks' main "Vogue" reference is a recreation of the shot of a long-haired Madonna leaning on one hand, visible only from the bust up (the shot is itself a recreation of an old Hollywood portrait). Some have noted that these shots in "1991" also evoke Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right, but It's Okay."



She gets a lot more from the 1993 video for "Rain," including the shots behind water-soaked glass and the visual theme with the blue-tinted microphone close-ups (more on that in a bit). Incidentally, anyone notice an additional visual element from "Rain" show up in another video in this article that's not "1991?" (Hint: Look up...one more...bingo!)



Why Madonna? Part of it has to do with Madonna's enormous influence across multiple genres (there's a Madonna reference in the lyrics of "1991"), particularly in music videos, since Madonna was one of the first major influential music video auteurs. Part of it is the impact Madonna had particularly on early 90s music fashion and style, which Banks celebrates in the video. And part of it has to do with the final video in our study, so let's take a look at it now, shall we?


Crystal Waters - "100% Pure Love" (1994)

While Aaliyah pops up a couple times and "Vogue" makes a cameo, "1991" is mainly an homage to Crystal Waters' video for her 1994 hit "100% Pure Love," liberally seasoned with Madonna's "Rain." Since of these three Waters is the one with whom some folks may not be familiar, here's a quick primer: though her father was a professional Jazz musician, Waters entered the music industry relatively later in life, after getting a degree in computer science and working for a time as a computer technician and raising two daughters. She began writing demos and songs for other artists in 1987, first with a production team and then for Mercury Records. Her breakthrough as a performer was an accident: producers liked her demo of a song written for another dance artist and gave her a recording contract for that song alone. "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" was a hit across the globe in 1991. She went on to have a successful career as a dance artist through much of the 90s, but did have one more mainstream hit in 1994 with "100% Pure Love," which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 for 45 straight weeks (for comparison, Katy Perry's "Firework" lasted 39 weeks).

Crystal Waters, an R&B-tinged 90s dance diva, is a really interesting reference for Azealia Banks, hip hop prodigy. First, how refreshing is it to see a young star of popular music whose primary influence is someone besides, well, Madonna, for one, but also not an obvious straight-line great from within the genre. It's easy to be influenced by Madonna - so many people are, and pop music as it is today is still a direct descendent of Madonna's music. For this great young hip hop talent to take major inspiration from an early 90s house singer, rather than, say, Jay-Z (the Madonna of hip hop) is not just intriguing, it's an encouraging suggestion that we're going to be hearing something new from Azealia Banks and not just new versions of the great stuff we've heard already.

Then there's the nature of the references Banks makes to Waters in "1991." Both women seem to share what in the lyrics Banks calls "the appetite for life, and the hunger for the more." Beyond all the visual references, the main thing these videos have in common is how much the two artists are enjoying themselves, not just making that particular video, but doing what they're doing, as performers. If you pay attention to it you'll find that there isn't a single moment Azealia Banks is not smiling, whether with her mouth or in her eyes. These aren't fake smiles, or snotty smiles, or self-impressed smiles; they're actual smiles: inclusive smiles, goofy smiles, happy smiles. That kind of constant joy and uplift was a major characteristic of 80s and 90s dance and house, just as it had been for disco in the 70s, whereas since the late 90s the predominant attitude of dance and techno has become more aggressive, while pop has gravitated toward either the aggressiveness of dance or the melancholy of R&B or alternative rock. Indeed, the rare examples of the giddily cheerful and uplifting barrage of positivity in popular music nowadays tend to be "throwbacks," consciously and pointedly set apart from an artist's usual modern ouvre ("1991" included).



While watching "100% Pure Love," you may have noticed how much it seemed inspired as well by Madonna's videos for 'Vogue" and, especially, "Rain," whose blue-tint microphone shots appear both in this video and in Azealia Banks' tribute to it. And since Banks uses visual references to parts of Madonna's videos that "100% Pure Love" does not, this suggests the amusing if unlikely possibility that Azealia Banks chose to reference Madonna's "Rain" simply because the Crystal Waters video she is paying homage to with "1991" references it.

So, just for fun, say "1991" is actually Azealia Banks channeling Crystal Waters alone, and that in referencing Madonna's "Rain," Azealia Banks is actually referencing Crystal Waters referencing Madonna. Now THAT'S postmodernism!

I'll give you a moment to reassemble your head.


Now that you know all the references in "1991," the question to consider is why Azealia Banks chose to go this way with this video. What purpose do these visual references serve, individually or as a whole?

"1991" is Azealia Banks' introduction song. Within three and a half minutes, she provides a brief bio, describes (and demonstrates) her rapping style and her interest in infusing hip hop with dance beats, expresses her enthusiasm and gratitude at getting the chance to be a hip hop star, and slip in a few words to mess with all those Illuminati conspiracy theorists whose paranoid obsessiveness provides the rest of us with such entertainment. And that's just in the lyrics; there's a lot going on in "1991," and the lyrics, substantial as they are, are just one of several levels on which "1991" communicates. (I strongly recommend a trip here ).

At the same time, Banks gives us a taste of the music and musicians who have influenced and will continue to inform her music and style as her career gets underway. But instead of coming out and saying "Hey, so yeah, my influences are Crystal Waters, and Lauryn Hill, and Lil' Kim, and early 90s dance music," and so forth, she relays this information through the music. She's cleverly communicating on two levels simultaneously: Banks delivers her lyrics over a 90s house beat, in a low alto voice that does sort of sound a bit like Lil' Kim, and ends with a verse that recalls the doo-wop style of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She trusts her listeners to recognize the references made in the music and understand that they're present for a reason just as the lyrics tell another part of the story. Then, by making a music video for "1991," despite the track not being released as a single nor being a live performance draw, allows Banks a third, visual layer on which to pack even more influences into those three and a half minutes. I mean, Adele spends the better part of an hour ruminating on a single breakup, and she doesn't even get anywhere by the end. And people say hip hop is self-absorbed.

The reason Azealia Banks doesn't always perform "1991" in her live sets is that the song isn't as representative of her musical style as the other three tracks from the 1991 EP and the music she has released in free and mixtape form. As I mentioned earlier, "1991" is rather a "throwback," a seeming stylistic outlier that serves some special purpose - in this case, a densely packed and rather ingeniously designed introduction to the artist and her musical background. It's meant to serve as a jumping off point for the other songs on 1991, not a companion piece. Because its sound, construction, design and delivery are so precise and significant and built around elements firmly grounded in the past, "1991" is one of those rare songs that best serve their purpose as a recording, and neither need nor would likely be improved by reinterpretation in live performance.

Azealia Banks isn't riffing on 90s culture because it's trendy right now, or because it just seemed like a neat thing to do. She's riffing on the music, and the musicians, that shaped her and inspired her to get to the point where she now is the one making music (and music videos), and she happened to grow up in the 90s, so there you go. "1991" makes for a nice and tidy opening to the narrative of her career, however it may proceed from here.

There's one other thing that makes "1991" a special work by this young rapper on the brink of stardom. In a culture, and especially an industry, that so idolizes youth and loses reverence for elder veterans (especially true with women), Azealia Banks bursts right out of the gate with reverent allusions to those who came before her and in one way or another helped her get there. What's more, instead of simply paying lip service to her influences, she incorporates them, pointedly, in a work of her own that both celebrates and demonstrates their impact - something by which any artist would feel honored.

But "1991" isn't just a tribute to certain specific artists, it's a tip of the hat to the legacy of an entire segment of the music industry, one in which she is now poised to launch her own career. It's like Azealia Banks is saying to the industry that she may be the hot new thing in town, but she knows where she came from and respects her influences as well as her roots.

And despite hip hop's proud tradition of shit talking and Banks' supposed feud with her immediate predecessor, Nicki Minaj (there is one ambiguous instance of possible Nicki shade in "1991"), there is a shot near the end of the video in which Banks playfully makes a face that suggests the sort of wacky, contorted expressions Minaj has made one of her trademarks. It's not a mocking imitation; Banks' smile is as genuine and joyful as anywhere in the video. It may mean nothing, but in this jam-packed video, everything has significance, and it almost seems like a brief nod toward Minaj, an artist who has certainly influenced and paved the way for Azealia Banks as much as anyone.

There's a hell of a lot stuffed inside "1991," spread across several different layers that play right on top of one another, and getting a handle on even one of its levels can take a bit of work and require multiple spins (hopefully a little outside assistance helps!). There are plenty of folks out there who simply don't wish to work that hard to get what Azealia Banks is about, and doing with this song, and that's fair - it's a lot to ask. But those willing to put in a little effort to penetrate "1991" and recognize just how much thought, talent, and ingenuity was involved in creating this seemingly effortless piece of work might find themselves, as I did, beginning to understand why Banks has generated such excitement and praise within the industry as well as outside of it.

And, if you're really lucky, you might end up absolutely loving this astonishing track, its equally magnificent music video, and perhaps even the precocious young emcee herself with the same sort of giddy, faith-restoring joy that I do.



Azealia Banks' debut EP 1991 is available now. Her latest mixtape, Fantasea, is available as a free download.

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