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There are few artists more divisive than Azealia Banks. Since she stormed the music industry with the brilliantly abrasive banger “212” back in 2011, the young star has seen her career derailed by label dramas, album delays and well-documented Twitter feuds. Focus has been shifted from her genuinely innovative back catalogue to her incendiary public persona, for which she has been crucified by both the music industry and the media. But Banks is a fighter. Over the past few years she’s been busy making an acting debut (in Love Beat Rhymes), readying the long-awaited Fantasea II mixtape and polishing fresh visuals for 2014 album cut ‘Soda’, but will the world ever forgive her previous altercations and just focus on the music?
The issue of accountability has been omnipresent over the last few months. Editors have been fired for old tweets, endless musicians have had their social media accounts combed for problematic opinions and even reliably-woke pop acts like Dua Lipa and Troye Sivan have been called out for using a racial slur. We live in a digital age which offers us all the opportunity to overshare. Unsurprisingly, many of us seize this opportunity, tweeting our every opinion without considering the repercussions. Publicists are now starting to realize the damages these rants can cause – a famous example is drunk Adele having her phone confiscated – but do we really want a world in which the controversial debates raised by these low-level scandals are suppressed?
Unlike so many media-trained robots, Azealia Banks has been admirably uncensored from the very beginning of her career. When Iggy Azalea landed a position on the coveted XXL Freshmen cover back in 2012 over an arguably more deserving Banks, the star didn’t hold back; instead, she called out Azalea for her straight-up racist “runaway slave master” lyric. Azalea’s “blaccent” and reliance on a co-sign from T.I. (who responded in spectacularly sexist fashion to Banks’ comments, sparking yet another beef) also undeniably played a part in her success, yet the legitimate talking points of appropriation and misogyny were ignored and, instead, Banks gained a reputation for being angry and bitter.
Things deteriorated, with Banks’ debut album being delayed and a series of new, more incendiary, online comments being made in the meantime. She fired out racially-charged and homophobic slurs left, right and center, often apologizing and explaining her need to work on her “really hot temper”. She also fucked up and got into some seriously inexcusable physical altercations, but none of this makes her, in any way, unique, especially in a world which seems plagued by a new controversy or lawsuit every day.
Banks’ homophobic slurs, for example, are nothing new: hip-hop has a long history of homophobia, as does the music industry more generally. This is just the tip of the iceberg: XXXTentacion scored a number 2 album on the Billboard charts despite allegedly battering his pregnant girlfriend, Chris Brown’s career went on to flourish after he beat Rihanna and countless legendary rock stars have had a blind eye turned to their histories of statutory rape. These examples aren’t raised to diminish the severity of Banks’ admittedly horrible tirades, but they are used to demonstrate that plenty of men are continually allowed to succeed despite committing actual crimes far more serious than anything Banks has done. It’s nice to think that, in a post-#metoo world, famous, powerful men will be held accountable for their actions, but how difficult is it to truly believe that when the United States is ruled by a man with his own alleged history of sexual assault?
Sure, Banks has always been hot-headed and used her Twitter account as a weapon, especially at the start of her career. She talks shit online – plenty of us are guilty of it, but few of us have our accounts held under a microscope. Banks has also been a victim. She’s been subjected to interference tantamount to sabotage from label execs ever since she was signed to a shitty development deal by XL Recordings at 17 years old; she’s had her creative control compromised, her agency stripped and her projects pushed back. Banks also struggles with mental illness, a fact she has mentioned on numerous occasions not to excuse her behavior, but to offer insight into her life and behavior.
The media has hopped on board too, rinsing Banks’ profile for clicks. In 2015, Broadly’s senior staff writer Mitch Sutherland sparked a Twitter beef with the rapper and then wrote a smug article about it, attempting to debunk her justifiable claims that white gay men are consistently guilty of blindly fetishizing or appropriating a culture which primarily belongs to black women. Two years later, Sutherland was exposed as a misogynist facilitating the success of alt-right website Breitbart by forwarding the pitches he was sent along with instructions to “mock this fat feminist”. He was subsequently fired.
Then, there were Banks’ well-documented accusations that Russell Crowe threw racial slurs at her, choked her and spat at her while throwing her out of his party. The rapper defended herself and broke down in tears on morning television, stating that RZA – former Wu-Tang member and director of Love Beats Rhymes – had turned a blind eye in order to keep his seat at the table. Things quickly got suspicious, with hotel staff claiming they had no CCTV footage and RZA later admitting that Crowe spat on her, but the damage had already been done. Banks later spoke out in more detail on the controversy, issuing a lengthy, emotional interview on everything from victimization and misogynoir to mental health and the sexualization of women in hip-hop.
For an endless string of stars, controversies either of this level or worse are forgiven or justified by their talent, but Banks had her career derailed almost instantly because she was pegged as the “angry black girl” – a notoriously racialized stereotype weaponized against all minorities to dismiss them or to imply their words aren’t rational, that they’re coming from a place skewed by passion.
Meanwhile, Banks’ stellar back catalogue has been ignored. The first demos she released showcased her sharp wit and versatile flow, whereas the eclectic samples she used – “Seventeen” and “The Chill$” sampled Ladytron and Peter Bjorn and John respectively – demonstrated a desire to experiment and transcend genres. She pushed this ethos further with the wildly innovative Fantasea mixtape, switching effortlessly between house, techno, pop and hip-hop, whereas the disarmingly consistent 1991 EP spawned stone-cold classics “Van Vogue” and “1991.”
These projects were released while Banks was locked in a series of frustrating arguments over single choices with her label, which was slowly disintegrating as key members jumped ship. By the time her full-length album, Broke With Expensive Taste, finally dropped in 2014, any momentum she had gained had been overshadowed by controversy. But the music was excellent. The Ariel Pink-featuring “Nude Beach A Go-Go” was an irresistibly catchy slice of batshit-crazy surf rock; “Idle Delilah” blends monkey squawks and steel drums to undeniably unique effect; even radio-ready single “Chasing Time,” a track made when execs felt Banks’ first single choice “Miss Amor” wasn’t mainstream enough, still knocks and shows off Banks’ impressive vocals. She continued this momentum with Slay-Z in 2016 (‘The Big Big Beat’ is a certified banger) and last year’s gritty ‘Chi Chi’, but her name has been tarnished to the point of no return while her equally – if not more – problematic contemporaries are being given the benefit of the doubt.
It is impossible to fully defend Azealia Banks. Some of the things she has said and done have been inexcusable, as her regular but lesser-documented apologies admit, but it’s undeniable that her media-driven downfall has been laced with misunderstanding, a lack of empathy and misogynoir. Social media has exposed all of our most problematic thoughts, but the constant unearthing of controversial tweets means that we can’t necessarily ‘cancel’ everyone: we’d have nobody left. This is not to absolve accountability, but is to question the way these controversies are handled; nowadays, all it takes is an apology tweet for people to turn the other way. Yes, Banks can be abrasive and offensive, but she’s also wildly experimental, musically innovative and leagues ahead of most of her peers in terms of creativity, skill and lyricism. If you really can’t analyze her problematic past in the context of her victimization, mental illness and willingness to be held accountable, then feel free to uncritically “cancel” her for good. But, by doing so, you might just be missing out on your new favorite musician.
- Main & Feature Image: Cassandra Hannagan / Stringer via Getty Images