The cover art for Azealia Banks latest mixtape EP, Slay-Z, is perhaps as revealing as the eight explosive torch songs contained within. Draped only in an oversized hat and barely-there jean shorts, with eyes fixed firmly at the camera, slight smile and breasts fully exposed--Banks is depicted without embellishment and the attitude is clear: this is me, take it or leave it.
The 24-year-old New York rapper is ready for her return. Years after her triumphant debut Broken With Expensive Taste , she was unable to release new music till her contract with Interscope expired, after she walked away from the label. That day has come and if her recent song output is any indicator, she’s picking up where she left off with her signature genre-repurposing playfulness. Originally Slay-Z began as an homage to Jay-Z, with a series of cover songs, but ultimately it morphed into a whole new set of songs.
“I'm actually a really big Jay-Z fan and I think of him as the pinnacle of success in hip hop culture. He’s arguably one of the most successful rappers,” Banks explains. “It started off with me doing a tape full of Jay-z covers, rapping over some Jay-Z beats and stuff like that, but I kept it under wraps and I didn't really do anything with it. Then one day I was just playing a lot of the songs and realized that clearing Jay-Z samples would be a bitch. So I basically kept the name and did some more beat grabbing and it kind of just came together. Lots of my projects sort of just seem to do that. I'll have a theme or an idea and they just come together. I don't know, maybe it’s like a synergy thing, or maybe a law of attraction thing, but these songs will just pop up and I'll be able to make sense of them.”
“I usually get my theme inspiration from my feeling of what I think should be in the mainstream, what I would like to hear on the radio,” she continues. “It’s not to say that I'm trying to do out do anyone or anything, but I like to make music that I like. Just like I like to eat food that I like. I definitely think that my taste in music and my taste in food and everything is very much inspired by my mother. So I'm really always happy to tailor make sounds for myself.”
That’s evident with her debut video ‘212’ which sits strong amidst the wasteland of YouTube’s endless music video bounty, having amassed 112 million views with its rappity boom bap. Audiences were instantly captivated.
Banks has always been a provocateur, shock-jocking her way around social media, and for awhile, that’s what the world loved about her. Her propulsive scat, rap/electro combos, unmistakable voice, and bombastic lyrics were a much-needed punch in the gut to the mainstream. She connected with her fans through prolific social media output—Twitter in particular— and quickly earned a reputation for her oft controversial comments on the rap scene, politics and racial issues. But her incendiary comments resulted in accusations that her mouth eclipsed her musical talent and people raised the question of whether her credibility as a musician was being affected by her denotative social profile. Her war on the rap establishment was excitingly disruptive. Before long, Banks, the unabashed rebel with a razor-sharp tongue, was deploying that slick tongue to extreme ends. Some critics wondered if the rebel was rebelling too hard. Her venom-tipped words got her kicked off Twitter recently.
Thing is, she isn’t looking for approval. Stop letting her troll you into thinking she is seeking your validation. Diagnosing her motivations is inherently pointless, her provocations have been already explained to those paying attention. The idea that openly speaking one’s mind, no matter how disagreeable its contents, is noble. Read her interviews or Tweets and you’ll see her ideology, though not always constructive, represents a radical response to the current sociopolitical climate. You can argue that she’s inciting drama at every corner, with her beefs with other high profile artists, but you can also see why. If you have no hope for the music industry you’re in, why play by any of its rules?
“Some of the most influential well-known people in the world have absolutely nothing to say. At all. About anything. A pop star is just supposed to stand there and look pretty and say politically correct shit. You know, that's it,” she says. “But if you're going to be an artist, a cultural figure--then be that. Don't try and just suck up to whatever the people's plight is. Don’t just capitalize on it and do some stupid video and shout a bunch of contrived shit in a song and then disappear. If this is how you feel about this situation, I would like to hear you speak. It’s easy to get a whole bunch of creative directors to sit on Twitter or Tumblr and pick your styles and dress you up and teach you the choreography, but I really want to hear what you have to say. What do you have to say?”
The world knows what Azealia Banks has to say is not perfect. But the fearless artist is uniquely HERSELF, she’s not putting on airs or peacocking her ass around town without backing it up with raw, human--sometimes messy-- real emotion. It’s her reaction to the stifling nature of the industry that bolstered her up only to cage her in. Walking away from not one--but two--major label deals was a ballsy IDAF move.
“There should be a healthy blood circulation when it comes to music industry. But what you get is like a big clot that is blocking a main artery,” Banks proclaims. “That's how I feel about it. I'm not gonna name names ‘cause it's just not important to but, yeah, the music industry just needs blood thinners to move the cells around so things are healthier, more happy, more vibrant, more inspiring. I definitely believe that art and culture go hand in hand, and you never know, maybe we can fix a lot of social problems that we're having by just allowing people with different voices, with different sounds, with different ideas to be on the grand stage. The world stage.”
Banks has definitely used the grand stage to defiantly speak her mind. About white privilege, women in rap, female desire, her own troubled upbringing and even her ‘support’ of Trump. She tweeted, “I have no hope for America. It is what it is. Capitalist, consumerist, racist land of make believe,” and “Donald trump is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.” But the world’s knee-jerk response to that Tweet only proves her point. She’s making a cheeky joke about America’s gluttonies but the mainstream takes her literally at face value and contorts her online persona into one of spite rather than of defiance and satire.
“Sometimes it feels almost as if the world is trying to beat me to my own punch,” she chuckles. “Trying to beat me to my own punch and it's like they completely fuck up the joke! They fuck up everything they don't get it and it's sad because you get these really, really cool great moments in pop culture, in art culture, that just get ruined by these huge pop stars--when what should be happening out there is just a completely different thing. Even the criteria of what it means to be a good pop star is so convoluted now.”
Careening from outspoken public agitator to accomplished rapper--as much as her words count, nothing should overshadow her musical gifts. Her latest musical incarnation, released on her own label, speaks for itself. Releasing all the songs for free, belies the idea that she isn’t interested in commercial acceptance; she just wants to achieve success on her terms. So what’s it like now that she’s on her own, calling her own shots?
“It’s definitely much more liberating, you know? It’s liberating because even though your friends with a major label and they cut you a huge check, there's no such thing as a free lunch,” says Banks. “When they give you money they want to have this extra influence in your life beyond just music and it gets really creepy. It can be really, really creepy, and really unnerving to feel like you're being watched or maybe you're being lead in one direction instead of another, without being told what's going on. I definitely think that my nervous system is a lot better now that I'm not on a major label and just not dealing with that whole system of paper pushing. This does not speak for all labels, I've just unfortunately had bad experiences with them.”
What does she believe is the main issue with major record labels and their agenda pushing tendencies? “I think what a lot of these major labels don't understand is that the old templates of: ‘insert artist here’, just add water style of selling art, adding commerce to art, is just dead. It only worked for the artist to have an insane gimmick before the internet started the whole chewing you up and spitting you out thing. I think that what happens a lot of the time with my situation in major music industry settings is that my ideas are so forward, you know? So good. And it is almost like a jealousy like "shit, why didn't I think of that?" And then there's the sensitive male ego involved,” she admits. “It's really unfortunately because even the people who work in the industry are bored, even the people at radio are tired of playing the same fucking shit over and over. It's not to say, ‘Oh, get rid of these artists or anything’, it's just like move them to the side, you know?”
It’s not an incorrect criticism of the label industry machine. It’s needs to adapt faster than it appears to be evolving. Especially with the how the internet has changed the stakes. “I think, on the upside, the internet has definitely a given lots of people who probably wouldn't have been approved by the corporeal powers in the music industry, a chance to get their ideas out there,” Banks continues. “I also think that what it does is that it puts everyone in one room which is not necessarily good. Like X, Y, and Z pop stars don't belong in the same room as with Avant Garde Azealia Banks or really cool FKA Twigs, you know. I feel what I do as a whole is so passionately done and that what I do musically is very, very high end and I don't think that it’s for the masses. I don't think that it’s for the rest of the artists to be in the same room as me. You know, I would like more privacy, I would like the internet to have a good bit of privacy so X,Y, and Z pop stars can't look at what I'm doing or look at my process because it's a very intimate process, very intimate thing that I have with my fans.”
Azealia Banks fully understands the power of artistry is tantamount to media fodder and her tight relationship with her fans has traversed the media’s proclamations. The honest-to-a-fault Banks holds no bars, and it’s an honesty that refuses to cower to a world whose darkness can often overshadow the light.
“I definitely think that I have a darkness about me, but also a really light, jovial thing about me,” she admits. “I'm like a bad little girl so I have a really dirty sense of humor. But I'm always just playing, you know? Like my sense humor is just so sick and sometimes I really like to go ‘there’ especially with beats. Things that people would normally shy away from because they think it's evil or they think are bad, but I see beauty in those things.”
Catch Azealia's full spread in Rogue's Issue #3
Story by Heather Seidler
Photography by Santiago Felipe
Styled by Jason LeBlond
Styling Assisant Carrera Kurnik
Hair/MU by Renee Sanganoo
Set Assistants Keith Ketwaroo