Bored of being defined by her sharp tongue and public tirades, David Zammitt finds there's much more to talk about with the 23-year-old rapper than her latest online feud.
“Y’all love that shit!” Azealia Amanda Banks bristles at the very mention of the Twitter rows for which, like it or not, she has grown infamous. However, since throwing ‘212,’ that hand grenade of a debut single, into an otherwise flat pop landscape nearly three years ago, her work has become all but forgotten in the cloud of her 140 character run-ins. As the tug of war to release her first album, ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’, played out over the course of two long years, she seemed determined to pass the time by sinking her teeth into a range of music industry targets.
Iggy Azalea (more than once), Angel Haze, Pharrell Williams, and Nicki Minaj (another recurring focus) have all felt the wrath of her keyboard, while a dispute with ‘Harlem Shake’ producer Baauer over an unofficial remix grew into a wider controversy when LGBT publication The Advocate reacted angrily to her tweet wishing for him to, “drown in faggotry.” Last year, MTV published an article entitled, ‘Azealia Banks’ Beefs: A Timeline.’ It barely skims the surface.
But while there’s no smoke, etc., etc., etc. – and Banks has racked up the fireworks and lit the touchpaper all by herself – she does, to be fair, have a point. The press most definitely do love that shit. The Guardian recently pushed an interview with the 23-year-old with the title, ‘Azealia Banks on feuding with the Stone Roses, Disclosure and Perez Hilton.’ Predictably, little space was afforded to music writing, save for a hackneyed line about its eclectic mix of, “rave and trap, electronica and R&B”.
Now, I’ve been through the album with my fine tooth genre-comb, and I can find a maximum of one track that might be described as anything approaching trap. But, it being the style du jour, Azealia Banks is lazily lumped into it before we move on to the real substance: the goss. In short, while she has too often made a rod for her own back, and continues to do so from time to time (she dragged Iggy Azalea into a row about US racial issues only this month), the story is getting a bit old.
And to her credit, there does seem to be a sincere desire to move on now that that debut album is finally out in the ether. As we talk she refuses, for example, to talk about Disclosure, apart from to say that she loves their work and that, while she may have had a bad experience, they’re probably very nice people. Similarly, she makes it clear that she does not want to go raking up old ground when I mention ‘ATM Jam’ – a Pharrell collaboration which she dropped from the final album – apart from to state that the decision, “wasn’t that brave.” For context, she announced over a year ago that the single wouldn’t make the final cut of the album, accusing Williams of not wanting to be associated with her following, “his lite skin comeback.” But that, she seems determined to prove, is in the past and it doesn’t have a place in the narrative she’s attempting to forge for her future.
So what about the music? Ironically, Banks took to Twitter, that love-hate window to the rest of her world, to finally announce the arrival of her debut full-length. “Voila!!!!,” she wrote on November 6th, out of nowhere, “Here it is.” And after we’re done wading through all of the extra-musical topics, she brightens up when asked about the moment when she hit ‘send’. “It felt really good! It was just kind of like, ‘Now I’m gonna start poppin’ my shit again. Now I’ve got my crazy licence back. I’m gonna wear some more crazy shit and do more crazy things to my hair.’”
Her enthusiasm is a reminder of just how fresh everything seemed back at the tail end of 2011 when ‘212’ first surfaced. As she bounced around its monochrome video, singing in the ears of collaborators Lunice and Lazy Jay, and the camera zoomed in on those bright, white teeth, she seemed emphatically carefree. It felt as though a disruptive new talent had emerged; brash and aggressive, it was a disorientating punch in the face courtesy of Lunice’s forceful, up front production and the relentless flow of Banks’ incendiary tongue.
Aside from anything else, though, ‘212’ was exasperatingly catchy and it’s testament to her knack for a hook that the track’s central refrain, “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten,” became the year’s most singable line, infiltrating even the most po-faced of heads. Indeed, many listeners didn’t even know what they were singing. But they were singing. In fact, such was the track’s breakout success that there was even talk of it garnering Samantha Cameron’s approval, although it should be pointed out that Banks did start that rumour (guess where), so take from that what you will.
But after the excellent ‘1991’ EP, released only a few months later, things started to go quiet. At least, that is, on the musical front. ‘Broke with Expensive Taste’ was originally earmarked by her former label Interscope for a September 2012 release, but after a string of pushbacks, Banks found herself publicly ‘begging’ the label to drop her by the start of 2014. She has since said that she felt like those years were spent in a constant state of auditioning, handing tracks in to the label like pieces of homework, only to be told that they didn’t fit the spec they had in mind for the assault on the charts that they were hoping for.
By July of this year, however, things were looking up. Interscope agreed to set Banks free, paving the way for the album to be released on Prospect Park, her manager Jeff Kwatinetz’s own label, and the rest is minor pop history. As well as a collective sigh of relief amongst her followers, its creator is just happy to have it out there. “I’m really excited,” she beams. “Of course I’m ready for the next chapter but I’m just kind of excited to, you know, put this out.” As she talks about the situation, she displays a self-awareness that seems absent from the woman conjured up in the other interviews I’ve read. She’s acutely conscious of the fact that it may have seemed like she was all talk but very little substance.
“I feel like for this really long time I’ve been this super-polarising figure and there was no way for me to justify it,” she says. “I feel like for a long time I was really misunderstood because I didn’t have a way to justify myself. And also I think I really needed to do more on-camera interviews because, regardless of whether I’m a musician, a rapper or a Twitter personality or whatever, my personality is definitely a big part of my brand and what I think is a huge part of my brand.”
It’s an insight into the contradictions that are bound up in Azealia Banks, and a hint that we might not have seen the last of those feuds. Though now, at least, there’s something to back it up. “I feel like now that the album’s out the end has justified the means. I feel like you can hear that this is a person who creates art to make sense of all the craziness that’s happening in her head.”
This chaos, she believes, is borne out in the LP’s undoubted eclecticism. Its 16 tracks move through bruising industrial hip hop, house, and garage – it even touches on latin and surf pop. “It’s shown by how crazy the album is. Like, I’m here, I’m there, I’m this, I’m that. I’m not sure if I want to be in love, I’m not sure if I want to be a party girl.” She pauses and revels in embracing the ambiguity. “I’m. Not. Sure,” she says, savouring every word. “But it’s just something about celebrating that uncertainty that I tried to bring through with this album.”
And with the studio release out of her system at last, she’s itching to get on the road. “I was sneaking songs into my set over the years,” she says with mock coyness, “because I had this itch that I needed to scratch. I would probably say that I prefer performing live to recording, because recording gets a little bit monotonous. Sometimes you’ll leave the studio saying, ‘Aw, that sucked,’ and everyone else will say it’s amazing but when you’re listening to yourself back you have time to suspend your own disbelief, whereas when you’re on the stage it’s in the moment and it’s go, go, go, go, go. You don’t have time for that shit when you’re on stage.”
But there’s more to Banks’ yearning to get out there than simply playing the songs live. A lot of artists like to tell you how awful touring is or, conversely, how it’s great to be able to ‘give something back’ to the fans. Getting on to the road, however, allows for a very different form of expression for Azealia Banks. “I love touring, especially during the festival season. Just because…” She trails off, making extra sure to organise her thoughts perfectly before continuing. She takes a more serious tone that suggests she’s laying her cards on the table. “OK,” she sights, “for me I’m always in the house writing. Obviously, because my shit is so cerebral.”
The line doesn’t cause her to break stride. “I’m always writing. And obviously I have friends, and I love my friends and I love my family, but I don’t get to date as much as I would like. And when I’m on tour I feel like I’m able to meet people, and, like, talk to men. I have a moment to stop and talk to them and see their faces. I find that when I’m on the road my love life is more exciting.” It’s punctuated with a girlish giggle. “When you’re here in New York you have time to overthink people. You’ve got your lists out and you’re like, ‘Does he have this and does he have that and blah blah blah.’”
It points to a tenderness in Banks that is usually kept out of sight. A lot of the hype surrounding her has focused on the image of a strongly – even aggressively – independent female, and yet a lot of that strength comes from her candour and an ability to hold her hands up and openly, often publicly, address her weaknesses and her fears. She has spoken of a fractious relationship with her own mother, while she says that a lot of the bitterness that manifested itself on Twitter was tied to difficult relationships with the opposite sex. In fact, the heartache she experienced at that time informed the LP’s closer, ‘Miss Camaraderie’, a song she cites as her proudest work and one which she isn’t sure she can ever top. “It came to me from a place of deep heartbreak and deep loneliness and I was imagining what my next lover would be like, and that’s how I wrote it.”
Though he hasn’t come along just yet, she seems to be in a much happier place. “I’m still searching but I’m having fun. I’m doing my thing, being young. I’m 23. But that song, I sort of wrote it to my husband, whenever he shows up.” It’s a disarmingly honest admission, and a reminder that this figure who people already love to hate is barely out of her teens.
As well as the familial and romantic dysfunction she has faced head on, Banks has talked freely about her battle with depression. Another of the album’s standout tracks, the ostensibly upbeat ‘Soda,’ carries a deeper meaning, functioning as a metaphor for anti-depressants and self-medication. “I’m tired of trying to try not to cry,” she sings before hinting at the desperation she felt when she first reached for a chemical remedy, “and I say soda, soda.” Depression, she says, is part and parcel of the creative mind. “I feel like at some point or another every true artist gets hit with depression. And sometimes it’s self-inflicted, sometimes it’s circumstantial, but whatever the source is it’s something that’s very, very essential to your artistry and your creativity and it’s something that you should embrace.”
I sense that she’s trying to be careful with her words, conscious that she may now be viewed as a role model whether or not she chooses to be. “I know that sounds really fucked up but it’s something that you should really take advantage of. You gotta use that shit and really purge it. Take advantage of it and fucking go overboard. Be sad. Be fucking sad, sad, sad. Go deep. Go, go, go, go deep.” She repeats it like a mantra, suggesting it’s a chant she’s already inculcated internally. “The beauty of being an artist is that you can go through all these emotions and be able to express them via music or paint or whatever the fuck it is. Not everyone can express their shit in that way. Bask in that shit and take everything you can from it because… all feelings pass and one day you’re going to be happy again and then you’re not going to have shit to write about!” Cue another attack of the giggles.
Much of what drives Banks is the energy and sheer enjoyment she derives from wilfully existing in opposition to the zeitgeist. It’s part of the reason why writers struggle to describe her sound, and it certainly didn’t help her relationship with Interscope. She has often used the word ‘anti-pop’ to define where she sits in the current musical landscape, but with the release of the album, is she worried that her outsider sound will be laid open to mimicry?
“Of course they will [copy me] and they already are but that’s what I do,” she says. “I’m always on to the next one. You get what I mean? Like, I’ll come up with a video and some other artist will be releasing her album and it’ll be held back, if you get what I’m saying. I don’t know – that’s what I do. I’m here to scare you. I’m here to be abstract. I’m the risk taker. I’m the one who’s going to put my stuff on the line. I’m the one who’s going to say the things that everybody’s thinking, that no one wants to get in trouble for.” Before I know it, we’re in dangerously Kanye-esque territory. “I’m a Jesus in that way. I’m sacrificing myself for… you get what I mean? I’ll try it first. Like if we get a bag of drugs, I’m going to try it first before you have to try it.” She convulses with laughter but it goes a long way to explaining the spiky interactions she’s had with her musical counterparts. “That’s what my relationship with the art world feels like. I’m this huntress and I have to go out into all these spaces and find all this shit and bring it back to the people. This is what I meant when I said I was anti-pop. The pop music machine, it has no love for the huntress or for the hunter. They just take the meat and run with it.”
As she speaks her eyes grow wider and she becomes more and more passionate as she lets loose on the growing canon of artists who, she feels at least, rely on her for half-baked inspiration. “You have no respect for the fact that I’m suffering here. You have no respect for the fact that I’m really, really fighting for what I have. And the main reason I’m anti-pop is not because it’s popular but it’s because the art gets so watered down and diluted by the time it gets out that you… you know that there’s a trickledown theory of economics? I feel like there’s a fucked-up theory of music, you know? These artists just suck shit up,” she says as she mimics the action of hoovering up coke into her nasal cavity. “They suck your blood,” she rasps. “They try to take your image and your essence and everything and the next thing you know, the bitch is painting her eyes so that her
face can be shaped like yours.”
Banks’ detest for imitation extends beyond her own work, as she lays into what she sees as a homogenous, leech-filled industry. “It’s like ‘Yeezus’ and the Death Grips. You have the Death Grips, who are phenomenal, phenomenal – avant garde, that’s the real energy. And then you have ‘Yeezus’, which is good, but it’s a knock-off of the Death Grips. I am anti-pop because I don’t think it’s conducive to cultural progression.” In fact, Banks’ take on the current state of culture is more than gloomy. “I feel like since blue jeans and Coca Cola, we’ve just been kind of going down,” she says. “Like, after jazz, after the 60s. Once disco hit, that’s when I feel like it really started getting bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Even politicians back in the day, the words they would use and everything. Culture was so more interesting then because the people were more interested. Now everybody’s blocked out by fast food and fucking Twitter. All these vlogs trying to tell you who’s dating who and who has all this money. You’re worried about how much money this person has? They’re never gonna give you any of it, you know?” She seems to have forgotten where the conversation started as she turns her temper on the record industry at large. “It’s just a really dry, stupid way to live. You make all these personal sacrifices for what? To sit at a table with a bunch of other niggas who don’t fucking like you and that you don’t fucking like. That’s how it is, but whatever.”
Amidst all of the background noise, Azealia Banks is trying, she says, to stay on her own path. “I think success for me is just making sure I’m enjoying everything that I’m doing. I feel like there are things that seem really nice to me, but I don’t know if I’m really ready to – not kiss asses or anything like that.” She pauses. “But I dunno, I feel like, especially in today’s industry and its musical accolades, there’s this whole holding your tongue, this shtick that you do, like, ‘Oh my god I love my fans,’ and this fakeness that people run off.”
This preoccupation with authenticity leads us on to another facet of Banks’ life, which has been less than simple; her relationship with the press. The mere mention of music journalism as a practice is enough to set her off (“Journalism is an art form in itself; I don’t need you to report what has happened.”), and when we touch on how the Disclosure argument was portrayed in the press, she is firm in her assertion that she has been labelled wholly incorrectly by a prejudiced press who are keen to exploit her position as a black female to construct a fictionalised figure that relies on lazy stereotypes.
“I know this is really fucked up to keep making it about race but look, I’m telling you,” she says. “The only reason they’re trying to paint me like that is because I’m a black woman. They always try to paint you to be some angry black woman when I know that I’m not. I’m just passionate. I speak at a certain volume because that’s the way I’m genetically made. I’m not angry, I promise you. I’m just speaking my mind. And then there’ll be another white female celebrity and she’ll say what she has to say about something and they’ll report it very matter of fact, but whenever it’s me they’ll try to hype it up like I’m some angry black bitch. It just makes me want to play into it. Y’all want angry black bitch, I’m gonna give you angry black bitch. But it’s got to the point where I can’t defend myself anymore. I don’t have time to explain myself; I have my life to live.” She breathes in and repeats another mantra-like declaration. “I have my life to live.”
And so she does. Putting the spats with the UK’s most-loved dance duo aside, forgetting the (fairly constant) Iggy Azalea-bating and the record company bust-ups, the big topic for the final Loud And Quiet of the year is how Azealia Banks plans to spend her Christmas. For all the controversy around her, the answer, it should be said, is sadly prosaic. “I’m probably going to stay in my apartment. I’ll put up a Christmas tree but it’s really for my nieces and nephews. We’ll just put up a Christmas tree and we’ll probably make something fun to eat and watch movies and open gifts. I’ll probably be in bed by 5pm on Christmas.” The thought doesn’t last long before a mischievous twinkle flashes in her eyes. “Or maybe there’ll be a party to go to!”
For now, it’s back to her apartment and the menagerie of animals she keeps there. Aside from her two cats, a guinea pig, a rabbit and a snake, she has two dogs – a Schnoodle and a Papillon – who pee when they get excited. “I got them from the shelter so they have mad emotional issues and won’t stop pissing all over my house. When they get happy they squirt a little.” Her days, she says aren’t as glamorous as you might think. “My life involves a lot of cleaning up piss and shit. And vomit because the dog ate the cat food or the cat ate the dog food. I’m a freak about animals. I’m always cleaning my animal cages. That’s why I’m always at home because I’m always with my animals and my plants.”
This, I tell her, is the really juicy stuff. And as far as I can tell it’s a Loud And Quiet exclusive. “I even have exotic pet insurance for my snake,” she says. “I have pet insurance on my rabbit and my guinea pig. I am a responsible pet owner.”
And that’s the side of this 23-year-old phenomenon we just don’t get to hear about: Azealia Banks, responsible pet owner. “That’s what I’m saying! What more do people want? I pay my rent and I pay my fucking taxes. Can I please express myself?” She says in mock remonstration. “As long as I don’t fucking kill anyone or steal from anyone I should be able to do what I want.”