Backbeat: Azealia Banks Brings a Mermaid Ball to NYC
Backbeat: Azealia Banks Brings a Mermaid Ball to NYC

banks (Photo: Jessica Chanen)

One thing was made clear early on at Azealia Banks' first-ever headlining set in her native 212 area code on Sunday night (June 4), even before entering the throes of Bowery Ballroom: this was not a grimy New York hip-hop show. Ticketholders were greeted with complimentary cotton candy before entering the main dance hall. Red balloons that resembled long-armed crabs loomed over the crowd like nautical specters. And in between each bearded hipster who was in attendance to ogle the buzziest of all female rappers at her hometown coming-out party, there were mermaids, adorned with jewels and scales and hopes of being named the fairest sea creature of all.

Indeed, the whole night felt more like a throwback to the late 80s/early 90s New York gay nightlife scene chronicled in documentaries like "Paris Is Burning" and "Wigstock" and popularized by artists like Deee-lite and RuPaul. The four songs on her 1991 EP, all of which Banks performed Sunday night, capture the sound of the era, too -- strobe-like synths, pulsating beats and sassy, hyper-fast raps that suggest an exceptionally quick-tongued drag queen rather than a direct hip-hop response to Lil' Kim or Nicki Minaj. Banks' recent collaboration with the Scissor Sisters, "Shady Love," further establishes her efforts to align herself more with the current gay dance scene than anything on Young Money or Def Jam.

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Hours after the Harlem MC -- who has shaken up the blogosphere like a snowglobe ever since dropping her bottle rocket single "212" last September -- performed an afternoon set at Hot 97's annual rap summit, Summer Jam, Banks invited curious fans to a "Mermaid Ball" in which her dance-fused aesthetic could shimmer in full.

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The announced set times for the Bowery show also made clear that the Interscope rapper's set was not designed to be seen by industry execs with burgeoning stakes in the 21-year-old's career. With Banks set to hit the stage at 1:00 AM (!), the show invoked a rambunctious disco scene more than a label showcase, and most concertgoers had to mix their Sunday night with either caffeine or alcohol to keep their bodies moving. Instead, the audience was littered with in-the-know pop music writers such as Gawker's Rich Juzwiak, SPIN's Devon Maloney, HipHopDX's Steven J. Horowitz, and Buzzfeed's Lindsey Weber, and included Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend and Greg Krelenstein from The Misshapes.

In the crowd, conversations about another female hip-hop star, Nicki Minaj, and her Summer Jam no-show were rampant, as were discussions about whose mermaid outfit was going to win the $1,000 prize in the impending costume contest. Meanwhile, opening acts like Maluca and Roxy Cottontails distracted audience members with throbbing beats and backup dancers as the night turned into morning, and a net full of balloons hung in the rafters, ready to drop at a climactic moment.

Shortly after the gleeful mermaid pageant crowned a deserving, colorful fish the emcee referred to as "Bubblelita," Banks strolled onstage in a body suit that exposed her left breast (a purple heart cutout served as a pastie) and with the numbers "212" running down her left arm. From 1:05 AM to 1:40, Banks blasted through her scant number of released songs with a skillful, slightly unpolished job on the mic. The rapper has only played a handful of shows since becoming a star signing to Universal, so the stagecraft (and set time) did not completely match her linguistic gymnastics. Still, the songs she did have popped: "Jumanji" thumped like a wild animal, and the title track to her recently released 1991 EP resulted in some embarrassing dance moves from the hesitant few in the back of the room. Banks kept spitting, but as the beats kept pumping, it became obvious that her interest is in forward-thinking dance music, not Hot 97 rap fare.

And then, of course, "212." Just like Banks' performance at Coachella in April, the flaws of her live show collapsed under the quality of her best song. When the balloons finally dropped from the ceilings and confetti exploded into the air at the song's crescendo, most crowd members were jumping into the air and slamming their feet back down in rhythm. Objectively, Banks does not possess the star power to warrant a 1:00 AM set time on a Sunday night, but for those three minutes, everyone forgot how tired they were.

"New York f--king City," Banks breathlessly told the crowd. "I'm so happy to be here." Although she didn't say much on Sunday night, the rapper did reiterate that her next mixtape, Fantasy, will drop on July 4. Her proper debut, Broke with Expensive Taste, meanwhile, is expected to be released this fall.