Azealia Banks: The Billboard Photo Shoot
"The first time I met Azealia was at a bar in New York with a bunch of music-industry types," says Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig. "She was responding to a drunk, middle-aged white guy's provocations with 'your mama' jokes. I love her combination of truth, passion and irreverence. You hear it in her music, too." Banks will seemingly go to war with anyone -- or anything, including institutions ranging from hip-hop to Fox News. But she is also at war with herself. Her flip and bullying tweets can obscure her intellectual agenda as much as they reveal it. Banks speaks her mind about white privilege, women in rap, female desire and personal demons. She's also a provocateur in the purest sense: She wants to get a reaction, to shatter comfort zones. "I'm not here to be your idol, because I'm probably going to do some f--ed-up shit," she admits. "I'm probably going to f-- some old-ass white man, and you're going to be like, 'What the f-- is going on?' "
Using social media almost like performance art, intending to shock, and also as a kind of public therapy, puts her in a lineage of artists including Courtney Love, Lil' Kim, Marilyn Manson and even Madonna. "Azealia Banks is a prodigy and tortured artist," Broad City actress and Banks fan Ilana Glazer tells Billboard. "It's exciting that one of those actually exists today." Hot 97 executive and DJ Ebro Darden says, "She may come out as aggressive, emotional and angry, and once they tag you with that angry or bitter tag, it discredits what you are trying to say. But I think what she's trying to say" in relation to the frustrations of black women who feel undervalued "is very important."
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When Banks waltzes into the apartment, she's wearing a white belly shirt spray-painted with a rainbow, a tangle of gold necklaces devoted to different saints, a bedazzled baseball cap and a pair of rubber Vibram shoes, the kind that separate each individual toe. She needs this "nerd wear" because she's "always outside picking up rocks and sticks and doing weird witchcraft stuff," she says, noting that she's deeply into divination and candle spells. "I'm always out in the dirt."
This Banks is a different woman from the one who recently posed in Playboy, wearing a latex cat costume (she also paddles around seductively in a kiddie pool filled with milk). In that interview, which reinvigorated the public vitriol that hovers over Banks like a storm cloud, she went on an extended rant about white America, jumping on touchy subjects like obesity and the red states. "I hate everything about this country," she said. "All the people who are crunched into the middle of America, the real fat and meat of America." Fox News, in turn, suggested that Banks should be deported -- in Banks' imaginative interpretation, to "go back to Africa and get a clitorectomy."
"It's the responses to what I say that prove my point," says Banks, walking back the comments as she soaks the chicken in vinegar. "I was making a joke because American culture is very gluttonous. We're very, like, Big Gulp. You want Cup O' Noodles? Here's 24 in a box. Maybe I shouldn't have said that, but who cares? When you fail, you've got to fail fast."
If any 23-year-old can expound on the nature of failure, it's Banks: When "212" made her rap's brightest up-and-comer, she had already been dropped by her first label, XL Records. Banks grew up in Harlem; her mother raised her and two older sisters after her father died of cancer when she was just 2. She always wanted to perform. At 14, she enrolled in Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music, Art and Performing Arts and formulated what she calls her "world domination plan." "I was going to be on Nickelodeon or be a Disney kid. They had shows like That's So Raven, and I'd be like, 'I want to be up there.'"
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Banks started rapping after she watched her high school boyfriend and his friends freestyling. "I was just writing this little rap on the side," she remembers. "I spit it, and they were like, 'Oh shit, you can rap -- you need to do that!' " She recorded a few tracks and uploaded them to Myspace in 2008, using the name Miss Banks. DJ-producer Diplo helped connect her to XL after she sent him her song "Seventeen," and the label flew her to London for a development deal -- when she was still 17. The relationship, though, lasted less than a year.
"XL saw me as this novelty rap chick," says Banks. "They wanted me to make an EP so they could capitalize on the coolness of it, but I wasn't ready. I needed supervision." After losing the deal, she flew home and fell into a deep depression, working at Starbucks and even a strip club to make ends meet. But because she was "prideful," she decided to release "212" on her own, recording the track in a friend's bedroom and premiering it on YouTube with a black-and-white, micro-budget video in which she bounced around in a dirty Mickey Mouse sweatshirt while smirking at the camera.
The song made the 19-year-old an instant star, New York's new resident cool girl, and eventually sold 250,000 copies after she put it out digitally, according to Nielsen Music. She surfs an exuberant beat by dance duo Lazy Jay, rapping, singing, chanting and gleefully referencing cunnilingus in a heady collision of hip-hop and crystalline pop. She does it all with the ease of an artist who spent her life on the Web, piecing together her influences. "I'm from the Internet age," says Banks. "I got on Twitter when I was 16. I had f--ing Napster when Napster came out. I used to make those weird Angelfire pages where you could have borders with glittery butterflies and shit."
But in 2012, when Banks signed to Universal/Interscope and started touring the world, life got messy again. As she wrote and recorded Broke With Expensive Taste, she claims that the label blocked her creatively, trying to force hit singles. As her album languished, she vented her anger on Twitter. "I felt like a caged animal," she says. "I'm this twentysomething who just became a millionaire, and I'm just like, 'F--, where's my album?' Things started to blend together, and I was driving myself past certain points of insanity."
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Banks began using Twitter as a weapon and a gonzo art project, a place to air her grievances and desires. "I often go on there as a way to distract myself from being a person," she explains. After the rapper Angel Haze started an online feud with Banks in 2013 and gossip mogul Perez Hilton took Haze's side, Banks lashed out by calling Hilton a "messy faggot" and got into a destructive Twitter thread in which she ended up telling Hilton to "gobble a d--k." (Today, Banks, who is bisexual, refuses to revisit the episode -- "I'm tired of talking about this" -- although she says, in a separate conversation, that "all my fans are gay boys.") She aimed her poison arrows at seemingly anyone: Azalea, Kreayshawn, T.I., Lil' Kim, Rita Ora, Nicki Minaj and her own management team. She even publicly begged to be let out of her Universal deal. Finally released in July 2014, she tweeted: "Free at last! ... I'm feeling like Miss Celie at the end of Color Purple."
With no label and no album, Banks worried that her online persona had started to eclipse her music. "There was a point where I was questioning everything," she says. "'Am I brushing my teeth at the wrong time? Am I drinking too much? Smoking too much weed? What have I done?' "
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So she started to take back control. "I don't turn to anyone for advice," she explains. "I do what I want." Banks surprise-released Broke With Expensive Taste on iTunes in November 2014 -- although she didn't put out a physical CD until just now, on March 27, and in total the album has only sold 31,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. Still, the music is as dense and exciting as "212," pulling from a seemingly endless pastiche of influences, including garage rock (grungy California singer Ariel Pink produced "Nude Beach A-Go-Go"). And Banks will tour this year with a full band for the first time -- a woman she met "in the nail salon, who does PR" recommended the group -- starting with a major kickoff show at Coachella. "Everyone told me she was unmanageable and difficult," says Prospect Park chairman/CEO Jeff Kwatinetz, her manager since September 2014. "She had a lot of history, a lot of challenges. But she's the most talented artist I've ever worked with." The goal for 2015? "To get people to focus on her music."
At home, Banks is exploring a more centered, if still eccentric, way of life. She listens to the audiobook of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance constantly, and wakes up every night at 3 a.m. to drink red wine and work on her latest passion project: a book that will tell "the fable of Azealia Banks." She writes this and her raps standing up, taping paper to the wall and pouring out words until an egg timer, which she sets for an hour at a time, goes off. "I drink, I smoke weed, I don't really bathe," she says of her work routine. "I might go off and masturbate and talk to myself in the mirror for hours. It's a sort of psychosis. I work during witching hours, 3 a.m., 4 a.m., when the dead writers, the failed writers and the failed musicians who are dead are roaming around."
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After she has dropped the dumplings into the soup, Banks reads from the opening chapter to her story: "Once upon a time there was a container and the container was filled with space. Inside the space was white light and dark matter ..." She reads for a half-hour, telling a metaphysical allegory that reveals her frustration with race relations in America. It's more veiled than the way she approached the subject in her Playboy interview, demanding reparations for slavery and its aftermath.
With the book, Banks wants to show people how her mind works -- how deeply she actually thinks about both her music and the bombastic words that she says online. But she continues to step into public squabbles. Most recently, Banks seemed to tweet (and then quickly delete) a photo of her genitals to conservative blogger Matt Walsh, who had criticized her Playboy interview. These are the elements working at cross-purposes inside Banks: She is well-read and thoughtful in person, bright-eyed and able to discuss race, politics and gender with nuance, even grace. But then she tweets, and the whole cycle begins again.
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Back in the kitchen, she unpacks some of her feelings on race. "I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' article," she says, referring to the widely shared 2014 Atlantic magazine piece arguing for reparations. "It was brilliant! That's the only way black people are going to move forward." She continues with a reference to Pharrell Williams, a former collaborator (and target) of hers who took heat last fall for comments he made regarding Michael Brown. "I get what people like Pharrell are saying, like, 'Oh, you just have to work hard, but we aren't given the tools.' But he's implying that he is the first and only person to ever try, and if you try like him, then you can get to the top of the ivory tower. It doesn't work that way. You and I, Pharrell, we have assimilated. We're the most nonthreatening black people," she continues, then pauses. "Well, obviously, I'm very threatening. But I'm harmless. I wouldn't, like, run you over with my f--ing car."
Banks directed some of her most withering criticism at Kendrick Lamar in January after he told Billboard, "What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?" She issued a string of tweets, including one that read: "How dare you open ur face to a white publication and tell them that we don't respect ourselves." She says that, even as someone who imposes few limits on herself, she feels there are right and wrong venues for speech. "Those are the kind of conversations that the slaves were having in the chicken coop," she says. "What we say about each other and what we think about each other is not for them ... mothers are grieving. Now is not the time to imply that these kids got killed because they don't respect themselves."
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And yet she chose to do the cover of Playboy -- an object, historically, for the white gaze, particularly the male gaze. She bristles when asked if she considers herself a feminist. "I guess so, but I also enjoy men and male attention and I like to show my ass and all that stuff," she says. "I like sex. [Doing Playboy] was way simpler than me making a statement. I was just like, 'I'm going to have professional porn photos? F-- yeah! You're going to take a professional shot of my p--y? F-- yeah!' " Says Kwatinetz, "My immediate reaction to Playboy's offer was, 'No f--ing way.' I asked other people around the office, though, and they said, 'There could be something here.' " Even though she disavows it as any kind of statement, Banks clearly thinks of the pictorial as an act of defiance, maintaining that "people are so repulsed by me, because I'm such a polarizing figure, that no one really wants to see me naked."
Either way, the Playboy shoot was her vision ("I love cats") and she's open about her sexuality. Her celebrity infatuation? Barack Obama. "He's so fine. Those big-ass white teeth and ears hanging off his head? I'm like, 'Oh my god, I want to f-- the president.' " In real life, she volunteers, "I sleep with my security guards. I love security guards. They're these big meathead bald white guys with blue eyes. And I have had sex with a lot of my female friends. It's a proximity thing. It's why I am going to call my next record Business and Pleasure, because I'm always mixing the two."
She admits that if she is going to tame her sexuality at all, it will be so she can find a stable relationship. Her first major boyfriend, when she was 17, was a 43-year-old who was physically abusive. "He had no business getting around me," she says. "I definitely learned my lesson." Today, she says, "I want a really smart man, who has a lot of silly jokes and stuff. I have to tone it down if I want to get that."
Banks starts ladling out the soup, topping each bowl with a delicate spring of cilantro, as her friend and hairstylist Liz arrives. "I could be a chef," the rapper says. Indeed, the meal is so delicious that we all go quiet. Perhaps she really could be a chef -- show another side the public doesn't see. And then she interrupts the silence, scuttling the thought: "Liz, do you think I need bigger titties?" She grabs at her chest. "I'm all ready to get my tits done, I've already paid for them" -- with a $9,000 deposit, which she has since gotten back. "I'm just afraid of the anesthesia." Liz groans.
Banks is an ever-shifting, sometimes self-defeating entity -- careening from domestic goddess to public agitator to gifted rapper to cheeky troublemaker to shiny pop star and back around again. It's a cycle that overshadows her musical accomplishments, but, as she knows, it keeps her in the news. "Celebrities are celebrated, and I don't think I'm celebrated," says Banks. "But maybe one day. It would be nice. I just don't want to be forgotten about while I'm still alive."