With the release of her bopping house-inspired new single “Anna Wintour,” rapper Azealia Banks shocked even herself.
“I’m enjoying the success of it, it’s quite surprising — I didn’t expect it to move this fast, I’m really happy,” Banks tells Billboard the day the track released (April 6), quickly hitting the top 20 on iTunes’ Pop chart and steadily climbing.
It’s not without reason she’s taken aback. Since Banks debuted with her career-defining breakthrough “212” in 2011, her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste, 1991 EP and mixtapes Fantasea and Slay-Z have stood in the shadow of ceaseless controversy, from spats with peers and well-documented court dates to tempestuous altercations caught on video and emotional breakdowns.
But through it all, the music has remained a consistent through line: the 26-year-old would be the first to tell you that she’s talented beyond her years, and she would be correct. Banks has true lyrical wit and undeniable skill, her chameleonic flow adapting to a fanned variety of sounds and styles and making her one of the most experimental rap artists with such solid results.
Now, in the wake of a new deal with eOne, the Harlem native hopes to bring the focus back to the music — even if she is still embroiled in public issues, most recently with a well-publicized fallout with RZA and Instagram barbs shots taken at Cardi B.
Banks plans to release her long-awaited double-album, Fantasea II, this summer (it’s still a work in progress), and has an eye on its follow up Business and Pleasure. For now, though, it’s all about “Anna Wintour” and securing her very first mainstream chart hit.
Originally, you’d mentioned “Anna Wintour” was meant to feature Mel B and Nicki Minaj. How did the song come together?
Well, back when I was signed to Interscope, Interscope commissioned Junior Sanchez to do a remix of my song “Ice Princess,” from Expensive Taste, and the working title of the track he sent over was “Anna Wintour.” And there was this big, thumping sample in it that was like, [rapping] “Anna Wintour/ Let me finish.” And, for a while, I would just play it around my house while I cleaned, did chores and stuff. Then, I asked him to send me the beat bare.
Originally, Junior Sanchez and I were going to make a band together called Zanzibar. I was going to ghost under this named called Beverly Steel, and the eye patch [in the promo photo for “Anna Wintour”] was a part of Beverly Steel’s persona. Of course, that was just an idea. That one went aside, and when I was writing the song, my choreographer Matthew Pasterisa was at home with me, and I kinda was using him as a soundboard. I was like, “Matt, what do you think about this?” And he was like, “Oh, yeah. That sounds cool. That sounds kinda like Scary Spice.” Then he goes, “You should just get Scary Spice on the song.” And I’m like, “Whoa, that’s an insane idea.”
So I hit up Mel B, and she was originally down, but she has got kids. I have four dogs and two cats, so I know how busy life gets. She’s just really busy being a mom and raising kids and doing her gig on America’s Got Talent. She’s always super-busy. By the time I needed to turn in “Anna Wintour,” we couldn’t wait for her to get to the studio. But we remained, or we corresponded with each other a bunch. It just didn’t happen. The Nicki Minaj thing was just totally an idea I threw out there, and I was kinda trying to see if I could bait it. She was on such hideout, such lockdown. To be honest, I never really sent her the track, because I was afraid she’d say no [Laughs]. So it was just an idea. If you listen to “Anna Wintour,” the parts that kinda you can tell where I was going with the idea of the song. This is the part I wrote for Scary Spice and the rap verse and stuff. It’s just like a ghost collab, kinda. You know what I mean?
You talked about how the song is kinda about finding yourself and finding God. What kind of journey were you on that inspired you to have that approach?
Just a regular life journey. Regular woman growing up journey. Everyone’s got growing pains, you know? Everyone’s done some wacky shit from their teens to mid-20s. I’ll be 27 in May, so I think I was just naturally having a metamorphosis, especially considering all of the time I spent away from the public eye, due to controversy and stuff like that. It definitely gave me time to reflect on myself and just do what every normal human being needs to do to grow up. Yeah, I definitely think that it was in those moments that I kinda connected myself to, like, just the ether around me and just started to feel more secure on the ground. More grounded and sure of myself as a woman, as an artist, as a person and everything else.
You mentioned how Junior Sanchez produced this, but you also put “executive produced by Harvey Mason Jr.” Were you referring to Fantasea II?
I’m referring to Fantasea II: The Second Wave, now which is gonna be a double-disc. It’s gonna be a remastered version of Fantasea I with all of those cult classics on there, as well as Fantasea II, with all of the new tracks. We’re gonna press it up in vinyl and press it up in physical and, yeah, hope for the best. We’re looking [to release] toward the summer, because it’s a mermaid album. It’s a summer album. We’re definitely gonna bring sea-punk back. Sea-punk is not dead, OK? That’s all I can really tell you about it for now. I think that I may just have “Anna Wintour” out and then I may just drop the project. It’s time for the mermaid to come back out of the water.
There was a tracklist that was released a few months ago. How similar you think the final project is gonna be comparatively to that?
Pretty similar. I would say about 75 to 80 percent similar. Now that “Anna Wintour” is out, I’m getting a bit of creative feedback from my fanbase and stuff like that, and that’s also helping inform me, or helping inform what tracks I’m gonna keep on the album, maybe which types of songs I need to add to my project and stuff. Because, definitely with Fantasea II, I wanted to give it more kind of like as close to the first Fantasea record. It’s like a hip-hop, mainstream hip-hop record with a bit of electronic, kinda tropical twist to it. Clearly, I’ve been doing all this singing stuff lately. I’ve got an indie-rock track on the album, which is something I’ve always wanted to do since high school. So it’ll just be more so about — OK, so definitely we want it to be cohesive, but it’s kind of just about chronicling those moments that belong to the Fantasea theme, chronicling them properly all in one place. Not all in random YouTube videos and random Soundcloud and stuff like that. Just to properly tell the mermaid’s story.
A few hours ago, you posted an Instagram about how last night was a big night for female rap. You’ve had words with Cardi B in the past, but looking beyond that, as with you and Cardi, there are other women who are making noise. Are you proud of that success amongst your peers in that regard?
Definitely, 100 percent. Honestly, because “Anna Wintour” is purely like a dance record, I think that for a very long time, women have been, especially black women, we’ve been fighting for this kind of visibility in hip-hop, that it seems like we’re now really getting. You can 100 percent owe that to Nicki Minaj’s taking female rap and making it mainstream-mainstream to the point where it’s not just the rapper on the track, just add a rapper kinda thing, you know what I mean? She took the female rapper beyond a feature artist and made her a premiere, main stage artist. I definitely think Nicki Minaj’s success completely made this or made the music industry really interested in making money, or the commercial viability of the female rappers. And definitely now, with all of the different ways you can stream and chart, it’s really becoming easier for women to break into hip-hop, which is very refreshing.
Again, you’ve been critical of Cardi in the past, and the reason I bring her up is because her record also just came out. It seems like what you said is referring to that. You’re very vocal about your opinions, but when it comes to looking at her success, are you proud of it?
I think that I am proud of any woman who kind of picks herself up without anyone’s help, you know? When the whole world knocks you down, I’m proud of any woman who picks herself up and rebuilds herself up to something better than she was before. I definitely am really excited about this year in female rap because I think that it’s going to really just shine a light on female rap as a whole. Especially with the commercial success of Nicki Minaj, you have a lot of people, artists and companies, thinking that you can really just kind of build these projects, these kind of science projects: get a bunch of writers, get a bunch of beats, whatever, get her a butt, get her some titties and let’s make her the new Nicki Minaj.
I think over the last eight or so years, we’ve seen a lot of these Nicki Minaj science projects, and all of them, they pop off for a little while and then they fade away. I guess I’m most interested to see if the industry’s desire is to try and successfully recreate this Nicki Minaj formula. I’m more so just interested to see if they can do it. I don’t think they can, because I just think Nicki Minaj is just like a maverick. She’s just like a branding maverick, and she’s so smart and she’s so, like, clever. It’s really hard for people to kind of wrap their heads around her formula and how she does things because she doesn’t, clearly, she shouldn’t tell anyone her secrets. But I think I’m more so just interested to see if these post-Nicki Minaj artists can exist past the first album. I’m more so just interested to see the real juxtaposition between these artists and the real Nicki Minaj, or these kinda like just-out-of-water artists and Azealia Banks, or a Kamaiyah or someone who has a little bit more… Somebody who’s a little bit more hands-on with art, you know what I mean?
“Anna Wintour” is the focus right now. Are you gonna be putting out a video for it in the near future?
Have you done it already?
No, I haven’t done it yet, but it’s coming.
Business and Pleasure has always been in the ether as well. What’s the status with that record and is it coming after Fantasea II still?
Most likely, yes. Right now, I’m just trying to wrap up this Fantasea II project and I’m just trying to jump back in the water and swim.
You’ve been around for quite a minute, so I think what you were talking about with longevity, that applies here.
Definitely. Now, it’s time for me to go for the big wins. I’m trying to crack the Hot 100. I think every artist wants to crack the Hot 100 once. Even if I crack it at, like, 70, I’ll be really happy.