There´s a new name in town and she´s breaking barriers. 21 year old musician Azealia Banks,born and raised in New York, had a breakthrough hit with ´212´ in 2011, though she´d been an industry insider for years, struggling to make a name for herself. She attended La Guardia´s school of Performing Arts, also known as Fame Academy, at the same time as fellow artist Nicki Minaj and initially graduated as an actress. With no luck trying to get her big break on the silver screen, Azealia decided to change plans. Calling her a rapper would do her a grave injustice as her verbal craftsmanship is unparalleled. How did a poor girl from Harlem become such a trending topic, defying the one-hit-wonder curse without ever dropping an actual album, while inducing the hip-hop industry with a much needed dose of gender neutrality?
In a world, and especially the current music industry, dominated by illusion and the concealment of flaws, Azealia’s low-budget debut video went viral for a reason. Not just because of its infectious beat, it’s undeniably catchy, but because of the unmanufactured nature of the entire concept. Growing up on the streets of Harlem, Azealia has taught to make do and mend and that becomes evident when you look at the video. No extensive styling or hair and make-up, she just put on what she felt like wearing; cut-off denims, a Mickey Mouse sweater and her hair in 2 pigtails. A long take of a girl in front of a brick wall, shot in black and white. Rapping about oral sex. Nothing Madonna hasn’t done before so why all the hoo-ha about this girl praising her vagina? There are far more scantily clad ladies to be found in a regular club on an average Saturday night out, saying far worse things after a heavy night of boozing. It’s the juxtaposition between Azealia’s schoolgirl outfit, licking seductively on a lollipop while looking into the camera for good measure, and the earnestness with which she conveys her songs, that make up for a sinister image. There’s nothing wrong with a Britney Spears dressed in bra and knickers, riling up horny men with sexual metaphors but for some reason, Banks’ straightforward candidness has a totally different effect on people. There are no grey areas with Azealia Banks, you either love her or loathe her. And many people did do the latter, not in the least because Ms. Banks is as foulmouthed in real life as she is in her lyrics and has had the tendency to start more than one riot with other well known artists on Twitter, having all the more reason to rant and rage: “Who the hell does this newbie think she is?”
To answer that question accordingly, it’s important to know that Azealia, an American, has a much bigger fan base in the UK than in her home country, despite the US’ excellent reputation when it comes to female rappers. But the music industry is infamously known for being far more corporate than creative and so it tends to stick with what it knows works. In a way, Banks’ predecessors had it easier because they did not have to fit any mold, there was none, female rappers were non-existent up until the late 80s, early 90s. The irony is that rap music is run by middle-aged white men who have no actual connection to or interest in the particular genre, but to make money and have held on far too long to what worked way back when, to no avail, stagnating any development in the particular genre. Prancing around half naked while rapping about the finer things in life doesn´t cut it anymore, people stopped buying into that a long time ago. And while Banks is certainly no prude, nor a fan of turtlenecks, she does not seem to be looking for male confirmation like her colleagues. Even today, female rappers can only exist in the company of male counterparts, assigned to play a supporting role. Surrounded by aggressive bare-chested men, they might think it makes her look equal but it only solidifies her position as wing(wo)man. Azealia doesn’t need helping out she does it all herself, even live, which is crazy considering how fast she rhymes but it just goes to show how talented she is and how she is vying at 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.
Banks certainly puts her money where her mouth is when she drops her first two mix tapes, respectively called ´1991´ and ´Fantasea´, the latter having no less than 21 tracks, showing off her carefully crafted skills to a tee. That also brought her to the attention of Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander Wang, two seemingly opposite ends of the fashion spectrum but both with excellent taste in music, which illustrates the versatility of Azealia’s appeal. The mixing of iconic pop cultural elements with working class symbolisms, is inherent to Banks’ style and highly resonates in our current culture that’s saturated with ‘perfection’. Banks’ look is gritty, grimy and there´s nothing remotely glamorous about it. It´s raw and real, just like her lyrics and because of her background it has a true sense of authenticity. Unmanufactured is what society is craving for and that´s exactly what she´s giving to ´em. Call it Trash Chic. Or in her own words: “Young Rapunzel Style”.
Which brings us to her music, the most important point of this assertion, a mixture of all sorts of genres. It’s not quite rap, it’s not pop or r&b and it’s not dance, yet it’s all of the above. This also explains why she doesn’t refer to herself as a rapper and that she doesn’t feel comfortable in the scene. Instead, she is heavily influenced by the New York Vogue-ing sub-culture. Her sister, who came out as a lesbian at 18, brought little Azealia to all the Houses and its eccentric inhabitants. Hence she is not explicitly lobbying for gay rights like a Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj, it’s all implemented in her music. The track ‘Fierce’ for example uses samples taken from the ‘Paris is Burning’ documentary, not because she wants to appear cool but merely because it’s what she grew up with, is inspired by. While doing so, she’s injecting the hip-hop hoodlum attitude with a much needed dose of gender neutrality. The music industry, and the rap genre in particular, is very rigid and wants things to be definable in order to sell and since Azealia is neither compliant nor cookie cutter, she’s rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. In many ways, Azealia resembles Amy Winehouse, whom also defied genres, fusing hip-hop, jazz and R&B and not only do they both have a look laced with intertextuality, they also share an unprecedented talent for words, rhyme and phrasing and being brazenly honest in their songwriting. Amy only got to make two albums, let’s just hope this new musical prodigy at least gets the chance to live up to her name with her first one.
Update: The album still hasn’t come out yet but since I’m seeing her in concert at Amsterdam’s music temple Paradiso in April, I get to see if she’s able to redeem herself.
Written by Thomas Stevens @ KULT & PASTE
Published by Second Sight