Jack Riedy is ridin’ with the same tall tale.
Azealia Banks took the stage at her packed Chicago club show in October like an upstart boxer returning the ring in the seventh round, shaken but determined to prove worthy of snatching the belt. The New York rapper rhymed with no backing track safety net at tempos closer to pounding house music than five boroughs boom bap. Even as she twirled in heels, she never fell out of step with the two acrobatic dancers that filled every square inch of the beer-soaked stage not occupied by a DJ and a drummer. Midway through the show, she paused to announce, “They tried to blackball the head diva!” The crowd, largely queer people of color, roared back indignantly. Banks repeated her statement, raising her elastic voice to a booming volume. The crowd responded in kind, as if the mere presence of the diva onstage in front of them was a triumph. Perhaps it was.
Since her debut in 2011, Banks has endured enough PR disasters to make a North American club tour seem as momentous as a sold-out run at the Garden. And unlike the nebulous, always-hating “they” of DJ Khaled’s pep talk, it’s easy to sympathize with those who wrote Banks off entirely. She livestreamed herself cleaning a blood-stained cupboard that she claimed had been used for sacrificing chickens. She offered support to Donald Trump the day after his election. She has used racist and homophobic language, including one insult to Zayn Malik that spiraled into a feud with a 14-year-old Disney star that made Banks look like the immature one. There have also been a variety of assault cases featuring Banks as both victim and perpetrator, including an incident last year. Banks was booted from RZA’s hotel party after she threatened her fellow party-goers, her reaction to Russell Crowe allegedly shouting racial slurs and spitting at her.
Since then, public perception of Banks seems to be developing nuance beyond her one-time toxicity. In a news cycle that reveals new abusers nearly every day, from emo to R&B to film and beyond, one woman’s indiscretions seem less consequential. As The Outline’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot points out, Banks’ status as a queer Black woman has led to utterly unfair press coverage, and her recent statements about her own mental illness may help explain, if not entirely excuse, her antics. While making the promotional rounds last month for his upcoming film Love Beats Rhymes—in which he directs Banks as the main character—RZA admitted that Crowe did spit at her yet apologized to the Wu-Tang legend rather than the actual victim.
Despite modest vindication, these controversies have obscured a vastly underrated catalog. Standing in the throng at her show, I marveled at the fellow concertgoers twerking and death-dropping in celebration to some of the most fun music released this decade. In honor of her upcoming feature film debut, here are 11 tracks that showcase the best of Azealia Banks thus far.
If you only know one Azealia Banks song, it’s “212.” The monochromatic video features Banks looking even younger than her 20 years in two ponytails and a Mickey Mouse sweater, a gleeful contrast with the profane lyrics. The ingenue manages to include “cunt” in a hook while also showing off her vocal range. Fitting for a song named for an area code, she raps the verses in a congested New York accent, all vowel sounds. Banks comes close to crooning on the pre-choruses before exploding into a ferocious shriek in the refrain.
The four-on-the-floor beat was a novelty before the term “EDM” became common knowledge. “This shit been mine, mine” is a hell of a claim for a debut, but the song has endured. The track was initially a free download, but it held up long enough to be included on her 1991 EP in 2012 and the debut album Broke With Expensive Taste in 2014. Of course, because rap pundits are just now learning to make space for multiple female rappers, rumors persisted for years that the competitive verses were aimed at Nicki Minaj. Years removed from the ponderous headlines, it’s easier to hear “212” for what it is: a young performing arts school alum giving herself an audacious dressing room pep talk that’s also perfect for screaming onstage.
This Pharrell beat sounds like his early ’00s hit-making prime, blending hi-hats and gasps until they sound the same. It’s like vintage Clipse if they had been absorbing sugar instead of other white powders. The track came out as Pharrell was ascending to “even my mom knows his name” status, sandwiched between his feature on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and his own ubiquitous “Happy,” and it still couldn’t become a hit. Not for lack of effort on Banks’ part; she first got the beat with the intention to write a Beyonce song, but even after “Formation,” it’s hard to imagine Ms. Knowles-Carter fitting her tongue around these verses. Azealia drops lines like “Pipes on her pout, might pipe the purr, Peter Pipe been about my pint for sure,” and the syllables hit so fast that it takes a few replays to realize that she’s flexing. Which is, of course, a flex of its own.
Remember seapunk? Depending on who you ask, Banks’ 2012 mixtape Fantasea is a chief document of the nebulous tumblr-born aqua aesthetic or a callous attempt at riding its wave. “Jumanji” sets the scene from the beginning, with harp strums washing over you as you descend beneath the seas. Banks brings the beach party to the borough, chanting “real bitch all day, uptown, broadway” over steel drums to remind you where she’s from as she smokes a blunt under a cabana. She even works in a reference to Harlem forefathers Dipset, quoting a Jim Jones threat originally meant for Nas.The beat is a maximalist blend of elements, typical of co-producer Hudson Mohawke, but the recurring four-note riff is enough to keep it from spilling over completely. Like the game in the title, the song pulls you into its own world then spits you out, disoriented and thrilled.
Compared to the high BPMs of her usual beats, the head-bobbing tempo of “BBD” is practically a ballad. The snare roll that opens the track builds and builds, but it’s a fake-out that leads into quarter note piano chords over a 16-bit final boss bass. Despite a clever Bell Biv DeVoe reference that incorporates New Edition and “Poison,” the title stands for “bad bitches do it,” a mantra Banks repeats for a hook. As she explains through three verses, “it” is getting high off vapes, making money off of men, and fucking. And her girls aren’t entirely platonic friends. Azealia adds a queer twist to the steal your girl trope, boasting about going “tits out with your wife.” Never trust a big mouth and a smile.
After catching the eye of fashion luminaries like Karl Lagerfeld and becoming more popular in Europe than her home country, Banks included this on her first EP: a straight-up house track about rich white men who lust after black girls. “Since you vanilla men spend,” she asks, “can my hot fudge bitches get with your vanilla friends?” Beyond the sundae metaphor, she compares her skin tone to pumpernickel, molasses, cinnamon, and the titular black candy. In the chorus, she sounds like a waitress cordially offering options even though she’s the only thing on the menu. Paired with the runway-ready beat, it’s a deliberately campy metaphor that tastes bitter knowing that the industry has chewed her up and spit her out. Yet in case anyone thinks Banks is devaluing herself, she insists in the second verse that she’s got a “lot of scrillac to make, and the dick don’t fuck up any scrillac for Banks.”
The Big Big Beat
Lord knows how Azealia got away with an uncredited Biggie sample on a single, but she didn’t squander the opportunity. Producer An Expresso brings a line from “Can I Get Witcha” into a Detroit warehouse circa 1988. The New York legend sounds surprisingly sleek over techno drums, his booming voice chopped until it sounds more like percussion than melody. On this Slay-Z cut, Banks pulls double-duty. She MCs in the truest sense, imploring listeners to dance to the big big beat, then switches to singing like a repurposed Diana Ross sample. “Ooh boy, you need a taste of ecstasy,” she sings, letting listeners take that as literally as they like. In her verses, multisyllabic boasts just roll off her tongue, like, “Keep jockin’ this jiggy bitch, jigglin’ hello, that gymnast body, black feminist rebel.” Juicy.
Heavy Metal and Reflective
Azealia goes cyberpunk. An engine roars, and we’re off, pausing only to quote Blade Runner quoting William Blake. Of course Azealia sympathizes with the robots in that film. She raps with an inhuman intensity, like she’s compressed all the action of a post-apocalypse flick into two and a half minutes. While the rest of us chase sex, style, or money, she’s looking heavy metal and reflective, indestructible. This is heavy metal like the French sci-fi magazine, man and machine alike plugging into orifices in an endless feedback loop. Producer Lil Internet’s computer must have self-destructed when he finished this one. The lead synth sounds like a Game Boy run through a distortion pedal from next century. Androids dream of insults as cutting as “I be PYT, you Billie Jean, you be that ex-bitch.”
While Banks’ entire catalog is influenced by various stripes of dance music, “Skylar Diggins” is one of few to dabble in EDM of the fist pump variety. The track is built around a thick repeating synth line that increases in intensity until Banks calls out to the entirety of NYC a cappella. A bar of echoing pings builds tension that hovers in the air like a ball mid tip-off. The beat drops back to Earth on the chorus in a Lex Luger-esque bump. Azealia reminds listeners that she’s stunting like the WNBA star, “Skylar Diggins with the wrist.” Unlike Diggins’ time in South Bend, Banks says she has been “balling so hard I had to skip college.” The result is a jock jam by and for women, a banger that would fit in a locker room playlist as well as a Skrillex set.
Named after a side character in Scarface, “Chi Chi” is Banks playing dress-up in coke-rap drag. She taps into a chilling deadpan tone, like Chief Keef with more complex bars. “I be wildin’ for the cheddar, for that paper, island hopping in Bahamas, helicopter to Jamaica,” she breaks down her distribution on the tongue-twisting chorus. The beat is downright ominous. A few years ago, the blend of video game gun sounds, synth string sections, and skittering static would have built up to a pyrotechnic beat drop. In 2017, the special effect is Banks purring unaccompanied, “Click click, bam, you be next to go.” This genuine menace bodes well for her next project.
Fuck Up The Fun
“Just play the track, stop cutting it off,” Azealia insists in her amped up New Yorker accent, “and lemme pop my shit.” Consider it popped. This Diplo beat is nothing but stomping bass and snare rolls. With no other production distractions, Banks delivers two blistering verses condemning all haters and wave-riders. Even at the turned-up march tempo, she spews internal rhymes like, “Don’t get it at your residence and get it so clean, ’cause I’m slicker with the evidence and bitches won’t speak.” “Fuck Up The Fun” sounds like Azealia as grand marshal of a parade in her own honor, floating through Manhattan on a balloon version of the mermaid cartoon from Fantasea’s cover.
What does it say about a relationship if the breakup leads to your best chorus? It feels like 90% of “Chasing Time” is its gargantuan hook, a new wave high-drama gem that would make Annie Lennox jealous. No wonder it was deployed as a single for her debut album. “Check my watch, I had my future in my pocket but I lost it when I gave it to you,” Banks sings, her pitch flattening slightly to turn that last syllable into a taunt. The kiss-off may be directed at former labels as well as former lovers. In the first verse, she demands someone who can “stitch me back together make me into who I wanna be,” not just sit idly in the dark. The beat thumps hard enough to dance away any remaining regrets.