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Azealia Banks: Past Dialogues

Fresh off the rampant success of breakthrough single 212, THOMAS HANNAN spoke with controversial rapper Azealia Banks for Notion 056.

“Are you going to ask me why I like rapping about sex so much?”

I’ve actually nothing of the sort in mind.  After all, if you know anything about Azealia Banks, you know that she’s not afraid of talking about the physical act of love.  Her breakthrough single ‘212’ is ridden with references to naughtiness, and features the most eyebrow raising repeated use of the ‘c’ word in modern pop history.  Since it spread like wildfire across blogs, clubs and eventually radios at the end of 2011, sex is pretty much all she’s been asked about.  That and how she went to a performing arts school.  But we’ll get to that later.  Point is, anyone who wants to know what Azealia Banks thinks about sex probably knows already.  Right now, wouldn’t it be nice to talk about something else?

“Yes.  I hate that question.”

We’re speaking to Azealia as she saunters round her Mayfair hotel.  She appears calm.  Too calm for comfort, perhaps – my comfort, anyway.  Answers to questions are so delayed that I’m often left wondering whether she’s understood what the hell I’ve even put to her.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing?  After all, if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a 21 year old black woman from Harlem.  But just when I’m considering whether the unfortunate toffishness to a lot of my phrasing might result in a disastrous set of perplexed, monosyllabic answers, she lets rip.

“Of course it uses sexual innuendos, but ‘212’ is about something much deeper.  It’s really about some artist who wants to be famous but she can’t get focused enough to fucking get her shit together.  She’s just out in New York City trying to get free drinks and hanging out with whoever’s famous.  It’s about that whack shit that people do on their way up, so even though it’s raunchy, ‘212’ is about actual stuff.  Y’know?”

It mightn’t tackle the Eurozone crisis or man’s inhumanity to man, but when you understand the importance Banks places on getting ‘focused enough to fucking get her shit together’, it’s clear that a tale of Manhattan ass-kissing and major label moulding of talent is one that certainly, for her, qualifies as being ‘actual stuff’.

“If you go to a label and be all, ‘I’m cute but I’ve got no songs and no personality’, they’ll just say, ‘this worked for this artist before, how about we try it on you?’  I feel like there’s a format for everything.  There’s a format for ‘black girl pop star’ and Beyonce’s set the standard, and then there’s a ‘alternative mainstream pop group’ and Coldplay’s set that standard, and there’s ‘Rap Guy’ and it’s one of the three, Kanye, Jay Z or Weezy, y’know?  But I’ve never been in a situation where anyone’s tried to dictate what my personal identity is because I’m such a headstrong person.  I speak my mind.”

Yeah.  Just in case you were wondering.  But whilst it might be fun to think that every 21 year old black woman from Harlem is as sassy and self-assured as Azealia Banks, there are surely some who are mouse-like bookworms, bespectacled computer geeks, slobbish telly addicts?  What, exactly, happened to her to make her in to… this?

“School definitely had an influence.  I went to a really big performing arts school in New York City (LaGuardia School of Performing Arts).  And now I get asked about it a lot.  But people are nosy, people find out shit!  Google me and you’ll see that I went to that school, you’ll find all kinds of reviews of shows that I’ve been in as a kid.  It’s not really a mystery.”

This doggedly matter of fact attitude seems inform her views on everything from the music press to the very nature of humanity (“Everything’s about conflict at the end of the day – hot versus cold, young versus old, black versus white, male versus female”) and, perhaps more than anything, money.

“I’m doing this for the same reason that anyone else goes gets a job – so they can survive and pass their genes on.  You need money for everything.  We’re animals, we’re supposed to be able to eat from the fucking earth and just do our thing.  But you need to fucking pay for water and food!  I definitely want to make money.  Let’s not front.”

Soon after we talked, Azealia Banks signed an album deal with Universal Music for the kind of cash that simply doesn’t get spent on musicians anymore.  Clearly, some relatively important people are buying in to her bravado.  But for a woman whose early success was tied so closely to the success of a self produced, low budget video that essentially just involved her saying ‘cunt’ in front of a brick wall, the need for a label’s helping hand struck me as peculiar.

“I need a bank.  That’s essentially the only function labels serve.  It’s an agreement – they’ll give you money, you’ll deliver them a fucking awesome album, and everyone will make more money.    When you go to a label, you’re really just asking ‘Yo, give me some money so I can make some super duper flash shit’.”

The first example of that “super duper flash shit” is set to be her debut album, currently being finished with producer Paul Epworth.  Yet again, whilst excited about its existence, I’m scratching my head.  Why is Azealia Banks even making an album?  Why now, when nobody buys the things?  What is it about this young woman – who so many within the music word seem to be pinning the hopes of the entire medium’s future on – that makes her want to do something so traditional, so Nineties, so archaic as making an album?

“If you want to just make something memorable, you have to put an album out. People are so fucking fickle, they just forget songs.  But if you put them all together, people will remember them.  And with me, I’m not modelling my shit after anybody else’s shit.  It’s not about being cool.  It’s about making great records.”

Discussion about Azealia Banks of late has however focused very much around being cool, ever since she claimed the top spot in the NME’s ridiculous annual ‘Cool List’ having essentially only released one (admittedly amazing) song.  Perhaps predictably, she didn’t care about that one bit.

“I don’t think anyone cares.  It’s just these people in the music industry who like my music.  It’s not like I’m famous.  Those same people that you think are famous are actually people too, they have blood running through their veins and if someone pushes them off a roof, they’re going to die.  There’s nothing special about anyone.  I don’t think anyone thinks I’m the coolest person in the world because the NME said so.  No offence to the NME but like, who they fuck are they?  And who the fuck are you, at “Notion Magazine”?  And who the fuck am I, you know?!  You get what I’m trying to say.”



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