A Close Reading Of Azealia Banks

I’d never heard of Harlem-bred rapper Azealia Banks until one of my students did a presentation on her buzzworthy and cunnilingus-focused single “212” in a class I taught on dance music and club culture in New York. I told the class they could bring in a song from any era, just so long as they could show how it advanced some type of argument about dance music. “212,” where we’re oh-so casually informed that a cunt is getting eaten (!), was the perfect song to talk about because it opens up so many questions, like the relationship between hip hop and house, and music and sampling in the digital era.

Music heads know that Banks’ first single, where she sings and raps in this “Valley Girl” voice, unapologetically samples “Float My Boat” by Lazy Jay. Samples it as in… makes virtually no changes to it at all. This, of course, gets everybody thinking about music and authenticity, originality, and even how legal it is to just steal somebody else’s beat, throw some rhymes on top of it and call it your own.

This time last year, Banks was so fresh, so new and so full of subcultural capital — this hot new black hipster rapper with a blue weave alllllll the way down to her booty — but she wasn’t even signed to a record label yet. Still, you couldn’t open up a music magazine or read a blog without hearing something about Banks. For all the praise and attention it received from music critics, Banks wrote “212” to prove herself to her label so she wouldn’t get dropped. They dropped her anyway. Now, it’s the song that made her fast BFFs with fashion designer Alexander Wang. It’s the song that Karl Lagerfeld heard and invited her to come play in his house. It’s the song that made her famous.

Why is it that when we produce an art that one single person in a position of power says blows, says is a failure, 20 seconds later it’s ultimately that art that makes us famous?

Banks, who graduated from LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts, the “Fame” school, is a freakishly talented rapper. She can really jiggle the puns, as she tells us on “Fuck Up the Fun” from her recent mixtape Fantasea. Her talent for flow doesn’t come across as easily on “212.” But on the playful “Jumanji,” where it sounds like a Velociraptor or perhaps a Tyrannosaurus Rex is going to come eat you, her rhymes are fierce and drop like nails spitting out of a nail gun. With “1991,” a biographical joint that will tell you everything you need to know about Azealia Banks, she serves a 1990s house party vibe that will get you dancing, no matter the time, wherever you are.

Azealia Banks is one of the first rappers, in my generation anyway, to link the hard edge of hip-hop and the overt fabulousness black gay culture, two cultures that go together like oil and water. This is ultimately what makes her interesting. Until Frank Ocean came out, black music has done whatever it could to disassociate itself from gay culture — no homo and all that. But Banks goes after us black fags, using drag ball culture as a blatant inspiration for her beats and lyrics. This past summer she had a drag ball at the Highline Ballroom. Can you imagine Kanye ever hosting a drag ball? And on her recent, deliciously long mixtape Fantasea, there are several songs that pay homage to black gay culture, including Paris Is Burning. I can’t think of a single mainstream rap artist who has done this as openly as she has.

In the past year Azealia Banks has blown up. Since “212” she’s thrown a whole lot at us: the four song EP 1991, the 19-song mixtape Fantasea, music videos, and cover stories on Dazed and Confused, Paper, and the current issue of Spin. A debut full length album, which she’s calling Broke With Expensive Taste, is out sometime this fall.

For all she’s doing to inject some newness into old school hip hop, Banks still seems like a “hipster’s” rapper — more art school than bitches and hoes. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. This is an artist who draws from the gritty underground subcultures of New York, and few artists are doing that. Nicki Minaj surely isn’t going to take us there in her Starship.

To me, Azealia Banks is the antidote to the ultra-image focused Gaga/Minaj/Katy Perry era of pop music, where everything is a spectacle meant to distract you from the actual music. Banks manages to give us talent, image, and can bridge disparate cultural worlds, and isn’t that what art is supposed to be all about? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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