Man, I’ve been waiting for Azealia Banks—says a DJ from Hot 97, sampled on her new song “Desperado"—waiting for Azealia Banks… waiting for Azealia Banks… His voice trails off like a subway leaving the station, but the DJ speaks for all of us. For three years, we’ve been waiting for her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste to drop. Not to make you feel old, but that’s how long it’s been since her breakout song “212” first introduced us to her brand of brash bisexual badass.
Backed by a brick wall, rhyming over a bouncy house track from a London DJ, here was this beautiful Harlem teen, with a cocky grin, dressed in an oversized Mickey Mouse sweater, spitting lines like:
Now she wanna lick my plum in the evenin’
And fit that tongue tongue d-deep in
I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten
I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten
After hearing that, folks on both sides of the Atlantic were thirsty to find out “Who the fuck is Azealia Banks? The video has been viewed 77 million times on YouTube. But in the 36 months since it first came out, Banks has become almost better known for her high-profile Twitter beefs than her music. Here’s a sampling of some folks she’s battled in 140 characters: Iggy Azalea, Lil Kim, T.I., Lily Allen, Rita Ora, A$AP Rocky, Kreayshawn, Pharrell, Lady Gaga, Diplo, and Eminem, whom she threatened to punch in the mouth for talking shit on Lana del Rey. A Twitter fight with Perez Hilton—a "messy faggot” in her words—alienated many of her gay fans and nearly killed her career.
After both of her post-“212” singles crashed on release, it didn’t look like there was much career left to kill. Faced with a future as bleak as a Detroit job fair, to save her career, Banks made a surprising move and pleaded with Interscope … to drop her. They complied after much legal-wrangling and even let her keep the tracks they’d invested in. That never happens. Ever.
Finally the fruits of her labor are here. Her debut Broke With Expensive Taste dropped in November, reminding us that Banks is an artist—not just a Twitter persona.
The wait was worth it. This album is a vindication—a genre-obliterating tour de force that shows Banks’s music is good enough to speak for itself, without the drama of an outsized and often-offensive internet persona. But will Banks let that happen? Probably not. She may be three years older—and more talented than ever—but she’ll never stop acting like the badass internet teenager she first introduced the world to, who doesn’t give a fuck what people think about her or her music.
“[E]verything on my album is, like, it’s going to be like anti-pop. Or just anti-what’s happening now,” Banks told a reporter in 2012. “I stayed very far away from dubstep. I tried to stay very far away from trap.“ Instead, she dabbles in everything from house to country (look out, Miley). On the track “Gimme A Chance,” she raps over a post-disco beat, then, without warning, the song becomes merengue and she starts singing in Spanish. Her voice is beautiful, and the pivot feels casual, not showy, like she walked by an open window in Harlem, heard music in the air, and began singing along to that Dominican sound. It’s unexpected but makes perfect sense.
The rest of the album has a similar air of cultural tourism done right, as if Banks is your guide to New York realness. The dance tracks are an invitation to an underground warehouse party. When she freestyles, she takes you back to the corner to light up a spliff. All of sudden she drags you off to hear a metal band, and tells you she always wanted a motocross dirt bike. "I try all the cultures,” she sings on “Soda,” a feel-good track about post-break-up depression. This simple boast captures the appeal of her album, her mindset, and her approach to life: freedom is paramount, even when it’s not politically correct.
Her seeming embrace of cultural appropriation is smart and subversive at a moment when a conversation about ownership of hip-hop and other traditionally black music and dance styles (ie, the twerk) is thriving—with Miley going ratchet and Iggy Azalea conquering the charts this year. Obviously, Banks has not shied away from weighing in on this conversation, telling Pitchfork:
“The whole trend of white girls appropriating black culture was so corny—it was more corny than it was offensive. Trust me, I’m not offended. All the things I’m trying to run away from in my black American experience are all the things that they’re celebrating. So if they fuckin’ want them, have them; if they want to be considered oversexualized and ignorant every time they open their fucking mouth, then fucking take it. But more than that, the art is not good. These songs are not good. […] All of America is celebrating shit like that.”
It’s an interesting reversal of the argument many critics have used against Azalea and others: if white girls want to take the toxic shit from black culture—well, let them have it. In an indirect diss, she treats Azalea like a rhetorical toilet, giving her all the shit she can take. And just last week, Banks gave Iggy a fresh load on Twitter:
She even calls out Iggy for the double-standard of mining black culture without showing a modicum of interest in the national protests about the unprosecuted deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed and black, and the national outrage over America’s racist criminal justice system.
Her attitude is only likely to turn up even harder, given the fact that her biggest rival of all time, Nicki Minaj, is about to release her new album any day now (despite her recent support for Minaj on Twitter). Both emcees grew up in New York, and even attended the same high school for the performing arts, but while Minaj went from underground to mainstream success in a matter of years, Banks has not had the same momentum. You could frame their fight as an up-and-comer taking swipes at the queen (“I don’t believe Rap game hierarchy …… Sorry!” Azealia once subtweeted Nicki.) Can Azealia Banks seize the crown from her Minajesty? It’s too soon to tell.
All we have for a preview is Nicki’s Anaconda, and the video Banks made for her new track “Heavy Metal and Reflective.”
Nicki may be a formidable competitor in the ass game, but Banks’ song hits harder than a refrigerator dropped off a rooftop. The video shows Banks in the desert, bound to a chair. She escapes and spends some time acting boss on a motocross. The video ends with her walking tall into the sunset, liberated and sexy, like Angela Davis and Grace Jones had a bisexual daughter.
It’s an unspoken declaration: I’m the baddest bitch alive.
Some statements are best made with music, not Twitter.