by Jonno Seidler (One A Day)
I never thought I’d be the one to say this, but Azealia Banks is the problem.
Like everyone else with an Internet connection and a willingness to change our mind about referring to ‘the C-bomb’ that didn’t win silver in the backstroke finals, I totally fell for the feisty Banks when ‘212’ came out, and again when it finally got cleared and started doing the rounds on radio and music TV. An impossible-to-hate summer jam that combined the best of youth culture, an incredibly underrated (and illegally sourced) house beat and the most audacious lyricism this side of Lil Kim, the song set Banks up for a fall before she even knew it was coming. Combining great electronic beats with incendiary rap is a trick as old as both genres themselves, exploited successfully by everyone from Basement Jaxx to Mark Ronson, but the line is blurring fast. With that, a new generation of rappers-who-aren’t-rappers and DJs-who-aren’t-DJs are becoming fixtures on festival lineups and stereos worldwide, and getting away with murder.
Strong words, yes, but justified. By now everyone is aware of Ms Banks’ trainwreck of a performance at Splendour In The Grass on Sunday evening, but somehow, very few seem to have a problem with it. As one of the top billing acts at the festival, she was a disaster; rapping out of time, turning away from her audience, cutting songs short and, to top it all off, blaming the festival’s sound system and her DJ when she bounded offstage twenty-five minutes later. Because she played that Lazy Jay number – albeit badly out of tune – she was instantly forgiven by about 80% of people I have talked to since last week.
I would wager that most of the people who thought Banks’ show was worthy of applause were probably on drugs or the type who would have just as much fun listening to it on loop in their cars. The only redeeming aspect of that song was the beat, and the beat was nothing new. Neither is a young girl with a foul mouth getting tough over dancehall drums from Diplo and co; we had that with M.I.A back in 2005. It’s the specific combination of all of these elements, at the right place and time that launched Azealia into the stratosphere. But to stay there, you have to prove you deserve it.
Banks’ peculiar hybrid status allows her to break a lot of rules; she’s a bisexual rapper with toes in every genre pond within reach and, as a breakout mixtape success, is beholden to nobody. Those who’ve tried to tell her how to survive in the long run, like Richard Russell of XL Records who arguably knows what he’s doing, have felt the full force of her wrath. But being the best of both worlds doesn’t mean you’re allowed to disrespect each one in turn.
If Azealia Banks is a rapper booked on a huge stage, she should know how to rap. Splendour provided further evidence (alongside her poorly executed Coachella debut) that Banks can only really bring the magic in the studio. On stage, she’s out of breath from pretty much the first minute, relies heavily on her backing track and often misses whole verses or cuts them out when she’s trying to dance. Imagine if a young Nas would have performed like this when he came out as a 21 year old with Illmatic. He would have been eaten alive. Critics frequently deride artists like Kanye West for being too obsessed with production, but when he hits the stage, he leaves zero room for doubt that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
If, on the other hand, Azealia Banks is a hype girl for an EDM DJ at a festival, then her songs should sustain the energy they do on record. Cutting off at the 1:30 mark, dropping cues and switching tracks by mistake is not the hallmark of a good party starter. Banks has used the same white guy on the 1s and 2s since she hit it big, and he’s about as hopeless as Paris Hilton. Given that half of the field simply press play and then dance like idiots anyway (see: Deadmau5, Swedish House Mafia), none of those kids on MDMA in the front ten rows who could see would care in the slightest anyway.
The fast takeover of hip-hop by dance music didn’t start with Banks, nor will it end with her. But there’s a reason critics love Banks and hate on Flo Rida and his mates, who are less credible but probably know how to perform far better than she can. I have long since relegated ‘212’ to the folder I call ‘The Nicki Minaj Monster curse.’ That’s the one reserved for powerful female types who become critically acclaimed before they’re commercially successful, and never quite manage to travel back. Just as nobody can forget Minaj outgunning Rick Ross, Jay-Z and even Kanye on his own song back in 2010, ‘212’ will hang around Banks’ neck like Coleridge’s albatross until she can properly reinvent herself.
They say you can’t run before you can walk, and Banks is proof. Bring down the hallowed genre walls by all means, but know that you can build something better in place of what you’re knocking down, before we’re left with a bunch of rubble where there once was a heritage site.
*Photo by Stephen Booth.