Taken from the spring 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
The year Azealia Banks finally decided to give up on living in Los Angeles, the wildfires were so apocalyptic that the whole sky turned blood orange. “I remember opening my door one morning to get an Amazon package,” she tells me one night in late January, “and there was, like, soot, falling on my tongue.” Her Californian friends were puzzled by her distress. This happens all the time, they promised, optimism superseding fact. Never mind that she couldn’t breathe, or go to the weed store without getting a funny look. “I was just like, ‘I need to move to the wettest part of the fucking country,’” she says. A drought is no place for a self-styled mermaid. So, Florida. Where everyone owns guns, and so everyone minds their business.
It seems strange and strangely fitting that Banks, who is as New York as they come, should feel at home in the heart of the American unconscious, what Joan Didion called the nation’s “psychic centre”. Shit gets weird in the most mystical American state. It’s like all the loucheness and weirdness of US culture drips down and gathers at its southernmost tip. Some credit the absurdism to the yearlong humid summers, others the wild diversity of 21 million people stuffed together on an electoral battleground, and still others the golden promise of laissez-faire living. Dysfunction is the governing logic, or illogic. Carl Hiaasen, our foremost chronicler of Florida’s “amiable depravity”, once referred to it as a “magnet for outlaws and scoundrels”.
And how else to describe Banks without first acknowledging her roguishness, her lawlessness, her aversion to convention? The rules have never seemed to apply, or even occur, to her. She works against trend, smuggling into hip hop her glitchy, rave-friendly sounds with such virtuosic ease that you forget to question how bizarre the songs really are. “I do have some house songs, but a lot of my category is technically electronic music, and people really do gloss over how great of a traditional rapper I am,” she says. “I’ve done everything. I’m singing opera on ‘JFK’. I’m doing dembow on ‘Salchichón’. I’m doing bossa nova with that cover of ‘Chega de Saudade’. I put out a fucking Christmas record. I just like music.”
Banks’s discography is playful and energetic and deeply original. It has the gilded sheen of invincibility. It’s brash, raunchy, intoxicatingly confident. She’s a technical wordsmith who foregrounds cleverness, and arranges her verses with a preternatural ear for nursery-rhyme assonance that doubles down on its often nonsensical, juvenile humour. On her latest single, “New Bottega” – which, last autumn, had everyone and their gay mother yelling “New Bottega, Prada-da” – Banks affects an Italian accent over a thumping electroclash beat, lovingly reciting a list of high fashion labels before delivering a characteristically Banksian bar:
“I put the boy in Galliano, now he’s a fuckin’ model / I’mma make him famous, rename him, I’m icin’ out his chain and / Still grippin’ the stainless, stay dangerous, ’cause most of these n***as is brainless…”
She’s always at home on any house beat, but Banks is also impressively chameleonic. She can glide from acid house and post-disco to surf rock and bachata, all within the space of a single track. “I make up my own genres a lot of the time,” she tells me with casual indifference. Say what you will about her: The only person who sounds like Azealia Banks is Azealia Banks.
But the ferocity that charges this command over language is, not at all coincidentally, the same ferocity that gets her in trouble. When the New York Times profiled Banks in 2012, the first line in the piece made reference to her “filthy mouth”. “I grew up in America,” she says matter-of-factly, “I grew up watching South Park and All in the Family. Like, I grew up reading US history textbooks.” When people talk about her, they tend to lapse into the conditional: “She’s so talented,” they begin, “but…” Press headlines have for years been marked by loose adaptations of “Azealia Banks is making enemies again”, be it record-label executives or bloggers or discarded managers or other musicians, and the hip-hop blogs have made it their collective mission to anatomise every single beef the rapper has ever lived through, cashing in clicks on her passionate sparring and then harkening back to it whenever she releases new music. One downside of modern celebrity is that you can never outrun past versions of yourself.
There was a point in time when Azealia Banks was the promising ‘young new face’ on the block with her pick of the litter on record deals, a wide-eyed LaGuardia dropout getting flown out to perform at Karl Lagerfeld’s birthday party in Paris, a 21-year-old force of nature with awestruck cosigns from hip-hop legends like Nas (“She has incredible star power… the total package”) and a then-still-golden Kanye West (who, early on, was keen to sign her). There was no shortage of industry professionals who would have publicly proclaimed Banks as the future of music. She seemed inevitable.
Banks belongs to a lineage of artist-critics who, despite the consequences, have no qualms in voicing their displeasures with the grand betrayals of the rotting, patriarchal, white supremacist culture they’ve found themselves born into. And because she doesn’t mince words, the focus sometimes lands on her language as opposed to her argument. “It’s just like, the audacity of these white millennials who are maybe one or two generations removed from a grandparent who would have had me hung from a tree for drinking out of the wrong water fountain,” she says. “The nerve of you to call me a bigot because I am making use of the language that I have been made to assimilate into.” The art has never suffered. But Banks is caught in a double bind where the qualities that fund and make possible her music are simultaneously the ones that thwart and complicate her career.
She’s also a Black woman with bipolar disorder working in an industry that fails, at every turn, to offer her any support. “There was a point in time when people didn’t want to book me,” she says. “I had n***as stealing my royalties and all type of shit. Like, there was a point in time when I was so fucking broke that I was sleeping in a storage space. You know, famous and broke.” It’s true that she has said some deeply regrettable things – her occasional transphobic remarks have been particularly jarring – many of which she has apologised for. Neither she, nor her fans, are unaware of these missteps. It’s equally true that tabloids have often elided her queerness when describing instances in which she has been ‘homophobic’. And there’s a failure to acknowledge the ways in which the ballroom scene, where shade is the lingua franca, has inflected both her sound and how she wields language to read other queer people. Some of the frustrations that Banks’s fans have with her are profoundly warranted. But it could be argued that her greatest trespass is refusing respectability, demanding to make music and exist on her own terms, and broadcasting her unfiltered inner monologue as if the world were a small room with a locked door and some close friends inclined to read her in good faith.
“I can be a little messy,” says Banks. “Everybody makes a bad joke sometimes. Like, who cares? Quentin Tarantino gets paid $500m to make really bad jokes all the time, you know? Come on. Let me get my shit off.”
Azealia Banks was born in Harlem in 1991, to two older sisters and a mother who worked long hours at a retail store on 57th Street. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when she was two, and in the only mental image she has left of him, he is lying in a casket. “That’s why I sound like a Dominican,” she says. “Because I was raised by Dominican caretakers. My mom would throw them a couple thousand dollars and just disappear for five weeks.” (On songs like “Gimme a Chance” and “Salchichón”, Banks sporadically slips into perfect Spanish with the unexpected confidence of Ben Affleck.) Her mother never told her where she was going, never gave an explanation. “I would just be in my head, like, ‘Does my mother not want me any more? Is she coming back? Is she alive?’”
She also developed her musicality in part because of her mother, who, when she was around, would do chores around the house naked while listening to Rachelle Ferrell, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer and Whitney Houston. Banks was ten when her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but their relationship was volcanic long before that. She had to grow up quickly in a home where she was forced to develop a kind of emotional armour. “She would brag about how she did witchcraft and killed my father,” says Banks. On mornings when she had to ride the bus to school after physical altercations, she would listen to Destiny’s Child’s “Happy Face”, and do her best to stop crying so the social workers wouldn’t put her in foster care. By 14, when she began studying acting at LaGuardia, she had moved out of her mother’s home and in with one of her sisters.
“I was always being told that I was a bad person, and I guess I kind of just accepted it as the truth,” she says. “And I think a lot of that early indoctrination, especially during my fundamental years, followed me into the music industry – where you would see me lashing out at people and just, like, being bad. Because that’s who I was told I was. When I came into fame and I had all these people showering me with love and admiration, [telling me] I was good and they liked the things I was creating, it was really uncomfortable for me. I didn’t know how to accept any of that. Nobody ever told me that I was pretty when I was little.”
Banks didn’t grow up dreaming of being a rapper. It happened naturally. She did grow up with dreams of being famous, but she always assumed it would be for acting, and was genuinely disappointed when she turned 14 and still hadn’t landed a show on Nickelodeon. “I just started rapping because I had some boyfriend who rapped, and all his friends rapped, too,” she says. “And I thought it was so cool.” Writing rhymes became an outlet into which she could funnel her disaffection with the acting career that wasn’t materialising. “I would always come and try to butt into the cipher, and it would be some wack-ass shit. They would just snatch the blunt out of my hand and skip me. And I would just say to myself, ‘One day, I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna get all y’all n***as. Watch.’”
Eventually, that day did arrive. She spent two months writing to a Ladytron beat and, when it was finally ready, she came back to the cipher to spit the verse a cappella:
“I’m not the don diva / I’m beyond you don skeezers / I get cake from quick chicks with long heaters / One-seven hot stepping like Tekken / I’mma be a main bitch in the game like Nina.”
The verse oozed with the confidence, defiance and provocation that makes Banks such a joy to listen to, and when she rapped it, nobody snatched the blunt from her.
“The fake ID don’t got a mistake / Miss Banks keeps these n***as caught up in a teen angst / They’ve been trying to look, trying to fuck / Since I first came through with the triple-A cup / Now I got hip slip tips in the butt / Now I’m on radar like warm weather fronts.”
The room burst into cheers; it was clear she was a natural. This was her first time actually writing a verse, and already she was miles ahead of her boyfriend and his crew. Her friend Johnny Five convinced her to record the song, and she put it on Myspace under the name Miss Bank$. And she kept on writing, kept on recording her demos. Every day after school at 4pm, she would go home, get on Myspace and send the songs to everyone she could. Eventually they reached Diplo, who became an instant fan, and she signed a development deal with XL Recordings, where artists like M.I.A., Thom Yorke and Adele had made their homes. It seemed she was on her way, until it didn’t.
The whole lofty, seductive promise of a development deal is that the artist will receive guidance from music executives who are, supposedly, invested in harnessing and cultivating their raw creative spirit. They’re meant to shepherd a musician from being unrefined to a kind of ultimate self-actualisation, which is to say the goal is to fashion them into something genuinely bankable. But any juncture where art and business meet inevitably reveals the faultlines of those competing interests. The music business is a capitalist enterprise, after all, in which the artist obtains the status of product. And it’s often Black women in particular who end up struggling against the definitions of profitability – sex appeal, pop appeal – that are handed down to them by an industry shaped by a white male critical gaze.
To hear Banks tell the story is to get the sense that XL didn’t really know what to do with her. She didn’t like the beats that Richard Russell, the label’s owner, was sending her, in part because they were often pulled from the reject piles of other, more established musicians. The label didn’t like the songs that she was sending them, in part because they didn’t conform to the sound the executives had envisioned for her. “It was surprising to me, because it was like, ‘I let you guys convince me to drop out of high school to write raps about sex, but nobody is developing me,’” she says. “I remember them signing Odd Future around the same time and being very, very jealous. Because they were being mentored and I was left by the wayside.” She felt like she was on the outside looking in. She couldn’t understand why nobody thought to put her in the same room as Tyler, the Creator, because they shared a kind of anarchic spirit, and she was a fan of him and Earl Sweatshirt in particular. “I just wanted to feel like I was part of the XL fam.”
Odd Future courted moral panic and, in its place, found love. Listening to their music was as macabre and as fascinating as witnessing a car crash. The world they conjured was bruised, violent and nihilistic, pushing vulgarity to the very limits of what it could contain; women, when invoked, were typically in the process of being abducted, raped, killed and/or dismembered. The group liked to refer to themselves as “Black nazis”, and made frequent use of childishly scrawled swastikas. In high school I owned one of their t-shirts, black with a giant inverted white cross emblazoned on the back. Labels started bidding wars to sign them; even Steve Rifkind, who launched the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and Three 6 Mafia, participated in the madness. In 2011, XL beat out Interscope to land Tyler’s debut studio album, Goblin, and I distinctly recall reading a review in NME that counted 213 instances of the word ‘faggot’ and its variants across the 73-minute runtime. (It didn’t, but the figure stuck.) Odd Future was hypermasculine, brutal, antisocial, stomach-turning – and beloved.
Banks, conversely, was too much to handle, though she was just as brazen and destabilised. “It was some misogynoir shit,” she says of her treatment by the label. Her online outbursts and refusal to sublimate herself didn’t earn her the title of “self-possessed” or “boss” or “genius” that might equip a man exhibiting similar behaviour. “I was still finding my voice as a songwriter,” she says. Your art, never mind your image, is a lot to trust someone with – particularly when you’re still a teenager. “I’m someone who, if you want something from me that I don’t want to do, you have to pay. And not, like, 20Gs. I’m not about to switch my whole personality up and have you put this image of me out there for $20,000.” She pauses, laughing in disbelief. “Like, come on. I’m from Harlem. Are you kidding?”
Maybe Banks really was being bratty, or amateurish, or demanding. Maybe the label was just trying to mould her into their version of a profitable star and make them all rich. Everyone was, as always, just trying to get what they wanted. But it all soured in the end. XL didn’t reply to her email when she sent them the Machinedrum-produced “L8R”, a filthy hip-hop cut that ends with an ode to “ratchet bitches” and eventually turned up on her critically acclaimed EP, Fantasea. The tension with Richard Russell reached such a fever pitch that, when she sent him “212” – the song that everyone remembers exactly where they first heard, the song she wrote from a place of desperation and anger, the song that Rolling Stone named one of the best of the last century, the song that any music executive worth their salt would go to war to get their hands on, he — and I am incredulous when she says this – dropped her from the label.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the way Azealia Banks wants or needs to make her art is fundamentally incompatible with the structure and demands of the recording industry. She is uncompromising. Since the atomisation of her development deal with XL, she has fallen out with a handful of other record labels. In 2012, she signed with Interscope and Polydor Records, and began working on her first, and only, studio album, Broke With Expensive Taste. The label spent $2m on the record. But when she turned it in, they complained there was no hit single – nothing that would climb the Billboard 100.
Listening to the project, it’s not difficult to understand their confusion. BWET is a brilliant, psychedelic trip that treats genre like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s a shiny, intricate mess of hip-house, R&B, UK garage, dubstep, trap, dance-pop, bachata, jazz, drum & bass etc. The label wanted something with mainstream appeal, but Banks had instead set out to make an album that was anti-pop. The project, like the artist, resisted easy categorisation. Somehow, she managed to get out of the deal with all of her songs, and released the album with Prospect Park, once more to critical acclaim.
Versions of this story surface again and again throughout the artist’s career. When this profile was initially assigned to me in early January, part of the premise was that Banks had recently joined Parlophone Records, the same UK-based label that signed Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles and Radiohead. Nearly ten years had passed since she’d released BWET, and another six since her second mixtape, Slay-Z. The new deal brought with it the promise of new music, flickering on the horizon like a mirage coalescing into something real.
But a couple of nights before our interview, Banks announced, via Instagram, that she had severed ties with the label after just a few months of being there. They clashed on ideas about the marketing for “New Bottega”, and even though Banks had only signed the deal to find a home for Fantasea II, the A&R team at the label remained noncommittal. “It was that whole thing again I’d heard so many times before. They always come with the whole, you know, ‘Just play the game, play this, play that,’” she says. “But it’s like, what game am I fucking playing? The game of making white people richer than I will ever get off my own shit, just to get it out there? It’s like, no. Starve these n***as out.”
The general consensus online, after the news of the split, was that Banks had burned more bridges for no reason. But her comments instantly bring to mind a conversation that the Long Beach rapper Vince Staples had last spring with a reporter at Complex, who made a casual reference to “the music game”. “But what’s the game?” asked Staples, with a knowing smile. A game implies winners and losers. And in the business of music, there’s an impression among label executives that they’re giving artists an opportunity, and so there should be no complaints about anything as base as project ownership. “They don’t call any other genre ‘the game’,” said Staples. “They call the rap game the ‘rap game’ because there’s a bunch of n***as running around, and they don’t want to give Black people shit.”
Black musicians have for decades probed the mysteries of other worlds in their art. In his poem, “Astronauts”, Robert Hayden once described the moon as an “Absolute Otherwhere”, and it’s no coincidence that space is the place where so many of our great Black escapists tend to go. To be Black is already to occupy an alternate reality: you are forced to accept as fact that which is not, by any accounts, real, but which still shapes your life in undeniably real ways. “The impossible attracts me,” Sun Ra once said, “because everything possible has been done and the world didn’t change.” Is it any wonder that Parliament, OutKast and Missy Elliott opted out of the merely ‘real’ or possible? Instead they built their own worlds, supplanted the limits of history with the possibilities of biomythography. Which is the difference, says Banks, between a true artist and an entertainer: the former creates a universe for you to live in, while the latter just puts on a good show.
I was 14 and feverishly scrolling tumblr when I first saw the cartoon brown-skinned mermaid with the long aquamarine hair on the cover of her 2012 mixtape, Fantasea. The character resonated with the nautical Afrofuturist aesthetics of Detroit techno duo Drexciya, but Banks says she hadn’t heard of them when she adopted the seapunk look. “I was blown away when I found them. Because here you had these two guys creating a myth around slaves who were thrown off slave ships and then grew gills and evolved so their bodies could survive in those conditions. And I was like, nah, we’re tapped in. All music geniuses are tapped into some primordial database of knowledge that exists in the subconscious or the pineal gland,” she says, her laughter dissolving into earnestness. “It gave me this sense of validation, knowing there were other people who felt like that.”
I ask her what she means by this. There is a certain type of artist who, confronted with a life that renders their basic survival tenuous, invents a character who can endure and even transcend the precarity of their circumstances. Did the myth of the mermaid spring from a desire to project an evolved version of herself into the world? One who could not only survive, but also thrive, amid the dangers of the deep sea? “A lot of people don’t know that, when I say I’m a mermaid, it’s not just some cosplay thing,” she says. Banks is initiated in Palo Mayombe, an African diasporic religion that was brought to the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade, and identifies with the Yoruban deity Yemaya, a protector of women who is often depicted as a mermaid. Like any other non-Abrahamic religion, Palo tends to be derided and misunderstood in the western world. So when Banks went on Instagram Live in late 2016 to show a room with evidence of “three years’ worth of Brujería” – dried chicken blood – caking the walls, it was almost a self-fulling prophecy that she was immediately written off as insane. “That’s why it’s like, fuck you, I don’t want to hear anything about animal sacrifice. Because this is where I’ve found identity. This is where I’ve found comfort. This is who has been watching over me my entire life.”
Reporters are invariably plagued by the fear that their subject will not share enough of themselves – that, when the recorder is on and the questions begin, the star will become shy and reticent, retreating into the comfort of their privacy, and the reporter will emerge from the interview having learned nothing at all new. Banks is neither shy nor reticent. She can’t help but bare it all. She’s always bringing her whole entire self, as Carrie Mae Weems once put it, to the kitchen table. She can be commanding and authoritative in one moment and sensitive, almost fragile, in the next. She speaks in the longform and never offers a one-word answer. It’s a way of being I’ve encountered most often among people who desperately want to be understood, and it surprises me that so few people seem to understand her. What does it mean to be given the gift of language and then told that you’re misusing it? To have so much to say and find the people around you can’t stomach it?
Lately, Banks has been feeling good. She seems grounded, happy. She has recorded around 50 songs for Fantasea II, and another 25 for Business & Pleasure, the follow-up to BWET, which she says she doesn’t really know how to describe. “It’s rap,” she says, noncommittally. There’s some Spanish drill, and some R&B songs where she feels like she’s really showcasing her singing. “My voice has definitely matured a lot, and I feel really sexy when I sing now. When you’re younger, especially when you come from theatre like I do, you’re kind of listening to yourself as you sing, to make sure that you sound pretty. But I don’t care about sounding pretty. Because I’ve realised that I’m fucking gorgeous.”
Banks isn’t nearly as online as she once was, and doesn’t really pay attention to what people say about her there. Instead, she pours a significant amount of energy into CheapyXO, the store she founded in 2017 that sells products like hydrosol mists, acupressure tools, herbal teas and soaps to help alleviate haemorrhoids from anal sex. (There was a time when gay men were tweeting her before and after photos of their literal assholes, as though she was the fairy godmother of their colons.)
These days, her idea of success has more to do with maintaining a routine. She has just moved into a new home, and is trying to get rid of some of the clothes she has accumulated over the past couple of years. “Some of these designers get mad and be like, ‘I’m never sending Azealia clothes again, because she’s just gonna sell them to her fans,’” she says. She’s far more secure now than she was in late 2017, when she was famous and broke and living in a WeWork office lined by the clothes she was selling on Depop. Now, she’s focusing on the small things: decluttering is one route to peace of mind. Over the past year, she’s had a lot of revelations. “I’ve realised that my existence is not a consequence – I am not somehow cursed because I am of African descent,” she says. “My existence is part of the natural phenomena of the planet Earth, of the flora and the fauna.” She has been trying to break her “karmic cycle”, and reminds herself often that she is, in fact, a good person.
At some point near the end of our interview, I recall that Banks was on the cover of Dazed ten years ago. It’s a photograph of her looking prototypically defiant, with her trademark aquamarine hair cascading around the sides of her face and her fingers lifted to her lips, inflating a red condom. The issue was banned in seven countries. I begin to formulate a sentence about her return to the magazine, but she misinterprets my phrasing as an observation about a general comeback. “But I never left,” she insists. “I’ve always been here.” Earlier in our conversation, she said something similar, when she was in the midst of expressing her frustrations with the way that her fans have spoken of her recently, and I swore I could hear her rolling her eyes. “People are always like, oh, it’s the Azealia Banks redemption arc. But who the fuck am I redeeming myself for? You should be trying to redeem yourselves for me.”