Photo via Azealia Banks on Instagram
Azealia Banks is not lucky, and 2014 was not her lucky year. Since the release of her instant-classic debut single “212,” she’s courted public ire, whether for social media disputes with fellow celebrities (like this year’s well-publicized spat with T.I.), numerous false starts for a full-length album (like the release of the tepid, record label-forced single, “ATM Jam”), or fallouts with other musicians and producers. “212” was released in 2011 and in the three years since, Azealia was defined more by what she could type than what she could sing or spit. Earlier this year she was cut free of her major label record deal with Universal—a deal that, two years ago, had seemed like confirmation Banks was headed for global superstardom. For any other performer, this would be a career downfall. But Banks was able to survive, albeit not with the same degree of admiration and celebration as in the past.
At the beginning of November, with little warning, Azealia Banks self-released her long awaited debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, online to critical acclaim. It wasn’t luck that did it; it was sheer talent and force of will.
Banks is a resilient and complicated woman, which can make her both frustrating and invigorating. Mainstream black female performers are rarely allowed to be themselves: Consider the year’s most visible pop star, Beyoncé, whose image is all-around flawlessness. In contrast, Banks reveals a great deal about herself, fancying rawness and reality to the polished personas of most pop stars. This approach does not always prove to be successful or smart career-wise, but it does position her completely as an individual, a risk-taker, and her own type of artist. These qualities would be less of an issue if Banks were a man: We allow men to be themselves entirely, but we expect women to perform specific roles. Her blackness further lends itself to this limitation. Audiences either love her or they don’t. There is rarely a middle ground.
I love Banks and always have. In her voice, I hear a young black woman speaking to young black women. I hear in her songs and in her ideas (and in her pain), a struggle for respect, independence, and certainty in self, things that we all want, but that others with knocks against them struggle for even more.
Soon after Banks released her debut, she tweeted a series of thoughts about feminism and her acceptance of it. “I just think black women have a different set of social issues and stigmas to deal with…” she wrote. She accepted the benefits of feminism, but added, “I prefer Black Supremifeminist.” And later: “I love having audacious black girl conversation!!. It really makes my soul glow.”
In Azealia Banks, we see an entirely raw and uncomfortable artist and an entirely raw and uncomfortable person. We are conditioned to consume our artists in manufactured doses. And for the artists to maintain respectability and career achievements, they must also conform to a digestible identity. She rejected this and continues to reject this. Who is Azealia Banks the artist? Her singular personality and outspokenness is not for show, but a clear example of who she is. And as a musician, Azealia refuses to strip her music from who she is as a person. The two are interwoven, creating a complex, frenzied, rich, and uncomfortable picture.
The first time I listened to Broke With Expensive Taste, I was stuck by how much the album felt like the Azealia Banks we’ve come to know so well (perhaps too well) over the past three years. For one, the album is good—really good. In fact, it is one of the best albums of the year and one of the only works to truly challenge me as a listener. This year has been one of disappointments with long-established artists releasing work that feels like a step back or a step to the side rather than a step forward.
BWET was the opposite, and thank goodness for that. It is weird and layered and fun. Azealia Banks’s music, from the onset, has defied classification, and BWET only highlights this differentiation. When the world says, “This is who we think you are,” Azealia doubles back and refuses to agree. When people say they want another “212,” what they really mean is that they want another dance-floor banger, another reckless night, another good time, another faceless artist to soundtrack their lives. But what they got was and is Azealia Banks. Those instantly memorable lines (“I guess that cunt getting eaten”; “Imma ruin you cunt”) didn’t sprout in a vacuum. It took a while for many people to understand and appreciate “212.” It was and is groundbreaking. Azealia Banks’s next “212” won’t sound like “212.”
More than anything, I am struck by the sheer vulnerability in her music and by how that vulnerability, both in the production choices that highlight and reflect her rich, New York City background and in her lyricism, could never translate to the mainstream.
“Soda” is one of the best tracks on BWET, and it is one of the best examples of Banks’s charms. Here is a song that is tirelessly catchy, that is instantly danceable, and that is heartbreaking and raw in its vulnerability. I call these songs “Down Disco” (Gloria Ann Taylor’s “Love is a Hurting Thing” is the all-time best example of this) for they fulfill our multifaceted desires simultaneously. We are free to both dance in joy and cry in frustration.
In the song, she sings, "I'm trying to hide the untired eyes aside, I'm tired of trying to try to not cry, I might survive the night time or might die" over a bouncy, hybrid garage and house beat. Casual listeners might miss the lyrics, instead focusing on its perfect syncopation and intonation. But these words are a poignant, important look into Azealia, The Person. To me, it is the best example of two selves: the one we present to the world and the one we are deep down. And maybe I am projecting, but my connection to “Soda” feels made for my black womanhood, my need to present strength and resilience and my internal struggle of pain and sadness and frustration. This same push and pull of the danceable, the surface, and the deep, the uncomfortable, penetrates nearly every track on the album.
On “Chasing Time,” the first proper single from the album, she opens the song with, “I want somebody who can take it apart. Stitch me back together, make me into who I want to be.” And many of her most compelling songs, from opener “Idle Delilah” to “Wallace” to “Miss Camaraderie” are, as Banks claims, about spirits and beings she’s conjured up, alternatives to our understanding of the world, manifestations of pieces of ourselves and how the world at large reacts to them.
When I talk to my black girlfriends, we all feel a strong need to defend Azealia, both as a person and as a musician. We feel a kinship to her not just because she’s black, but because she’s a different kind of black woman on the main stage. She’s outrageous—in good and bad ways—and she seems unencumbered by the restrictions placed on her as a black woman. She gets to breathe and move and be an artist and, even with the criticism, never truly answer to anyone else. She feels like something new, from the future, even though she is only four years younger than me. She is not perfect and never will be. She is wrong, and sometimes that is right.
For black women, you are either terrible and awful and ugly, or you are righteous and pure and sanitary. We are not given gray areas or leeway or room to breathe. We are not allowed imperfections with greatness. We are not given room and time to grow. We must know ourselves and how to act in the world immediately. We are not free to be.
In Azealia Banks, I see a young woman fighting against this tide to be exactly herself, and I also see the world fighting back. I see a young woman who is deeply flawed but not given room to change. I see other people forgiven in ways that she is not. To be young and black, to be woman and artist, to be free and loving, to be complex and driven, is to be radical and revolutionary. We might not ever be ready for Azealia, but that is okay.
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