It’s three in the afternoon on the first truly hot day of the year, and inside the Greenpoint photo studio the loud whistling of a fan combines with the blaring of Azealia Banks’ discography to create a feverish cacophony. Outside the floor-to-ceiling window of the studio, the heat makes a haze of the far-away Manhattan skyline, which we have been staring at for hours. “And when I step in, them bitches they know,” sings Banks on “No Problems”, the final song on the 2018 re-release of her critically lauded 2012 mixtape, Fantasea. There’s a poetic irony about listening to these lyrics while we’re on hour three of waiting for the Harlem native to step in on set, without a real word as to to her whereabouts or the reason behind the hold up.
“Ten minutes ago she said she’d be here in 40, which really means she’ll be here in an hour,” someone finally tells me, which I relay on set. I make note that once we’re close to hour four of waiting I’m going to have to leave for an appointment – information that is met with a grunt. “If she isn’t here by then could we reschedule this evening?” I ask, “I can meet her any other day.” “You can email us the questions,” replies her manager without so much as looking up from his computer. “I’d at least like to talk to her via phone so there’s a conversation,” I push back. We concede to figure something out, which isn’t much of an answer, but more of an answer than we’ve received all day long.
At this point, the music has been changed and the volume lowered. There are about nine of us in the studio, and we all look up from our phones at any sound that could indicate Banks’ arrival. The tension, combined with the heat, are palpable, and as the clock nears the four-hour mark I finally leave. Outside the building a car is parked, and as I round the corner I catch a glimpse of the passenger in the backseat – it’s Ms. Banks, looking out the window.
It takes three weeks to finally book a 25-minute conversation with Banks to talk about her highly-anticipated album, Fantasea II. “Sorry, I have the Itis. I just ate like a big fucking plate of food,” Banks says, excusing her consistent yawning throughout the interview. I’m surprised to learn the vocalist and writer is 5’3″, not because I had ever particularly thought about her height, but because the self-proclaimed mermaid always seemed height-less, as if that were a feature that didn’t pertain to someone as talented as she is controversial. It’s only after speaking to her over the phone that I become curious enough to research it – her voice is big and commandeering, which, unlike her height, is unsurprising.
Azealia was only 20 years old when she released the song “212”, which became an instant classic while also cementing her place in an industry that was excited to see what the talented wunderkind had under her sleeve. A year later, she released Fantasea via Twitter, a mixtape that further showcased Banks’ talent – both in merging a slew of genres and in her vocal capacity; combining singing and rapping with an ease that leaves even some music veterans in the dust.
This amalgamation of musical references comes from her “general liking of music,” she says. “Well I guess it’s math, when you break it down… But I really like to challenge myself in that way, I like to find new feelings and I like to play with old themes and old things from the past,” she continues. “I like to find new ways to make things work and make things sound fresh to myself.” For example, she compares the vocal hook on “Moving on Up (Coco’s Song)” (from the RZA-directed movie, Love Beats Rhymes, which also marked Banks’ acting debut), to Mariah Carey, and continues to name Destiny’s Child, Lil Kim, house music, and R&B as influences she grew up listening to.
Following Fantasea, Banks announced she had begun working on her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, a project that suffered through years of delays, but which ultimately resulted in another round of positive reviews. In the following years, Banks became busy with other projects, including the aforementioned RZA-directed film and another mixtape, Slay-Z, released in 2016. With so much work between her debut and her latest venture, it’s interesting that her newest work takes on Fantasea, and I’m curious about the differences between that project and its upcoming second volume.
“Everything just sounds more mature, I think. Other people may disagree, other people may go back and hear some of the Fantasea tracks and think that they’re better than the ones on Fantasea II,” Banks says. I ask what were the biggest differences she felt in making this album: “I’ve gotten more of a handle on my musical abilities. Back then I was just starting to make music in a mass quantity… So, it’s kind of bittersweet revisiting my first Fantasea project, because I remember where I was in that place. I was this young girl who was just coming onto the scene. I remember that time being really colorful, but this time around I’ve just, I don’t know how to describe it, but I guess those are the words that I can use. It’s… bittersweet.”
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Banks and her career without including the controversies that have followed her from day one – they are, after all, big components towards the delays, label-changes, and general roadblocks that have oftentimes overshadowed her music. In fact, two days before our first scheduled interview, Azealia’s name was doing the cyber-rounds because of a feud with rapper cupcakKe over Banks saying she needed to get her breasts done (cupcakKe posted their DM conversations on her Twitter), and the day before we finally talk, Banks had initiated a new feud – this time with Cardi B, through criticizing the fellow New Yorker while doing an interview on The Breakfast Club. Banks’ story is replete with instances that she has both initiated and been subjected to, which leads me to ask, “Do you want to forgive those that have wronged you? Do you want to ask for forgiveness from those who you have wronged?”
“This is the thing,” she says, “It’s like people get way too dramatic about things. Who cares? People do shit. People have done shit to me, I’ve done shit to people. It just fucking happens – you live and you learn and you move the fuck on. Honestly, I don’t know what people’s obsession is with me being like this. People are always like, ‘Are you a miserable person?’ Oh my fucking god. Like I’m at home hanging out with my dogs, baking cookies, writing songs, watching TV, and doing my goddamn thing. People love the drama and then they like to pretend they don’t. And then they’re always like, ‘Oh, how could you say that?’ And then they’re talking about it for fucking two weeks and it’s like ‘shit, let it go.’”
I ask, “While we’re here, is there anything that you would want to clear the air on in any sort of topic or –”
“No,” she interjects. “I don’t even think anyone cares. That’s the truth. Aside from the fact that I don’t care, I think people really don’t care for this type of shit… I really, really don’t. I think a lot of it disturbs people more than if it weren’t such a focus of the media and the people in the media. I get that it’s the media’s job to report news, but somehow, somewhere, especially in the future, the media is going to have to decide what’s news and what’s not. Even nowadays there’s so many people on the Internet being reported on; there’s no kind of exclusivity over the content that a lot of these media outlets put up. There’s no kind of curating in a sense. Everybody’s just writing about fucking every little thing that happens on the Internet and eventually people are going to run out of employees and run out of money to pay people to write about things that happen, and in time twist these stories and do all these things to make one person the villain over the other.”
I ask if she feels a bit more in control of the perception people have of her with the release of Fantasea II, or if it feels like a second chance. “I don’t know, I guess… if you look at my place in life – the Internet world – I guess so, but I think people are just going to believe what they’re going to. Some people… they don’t want to forgive me for things. Some people would rather not engage, and that’s fine. But as far as the music goes [it’s] just so undeniable this go around that I will see a lot of that stuff kind of become what the fuck it is.”
“I’m an adult,” she continues, “I’m allowed to have my own opinion. I’m not a little girl who needs to be chastised for every fucking thing she says and thinks. And I’m not fucking around on this project. When I was a kid I used to fuck around a lot. I mean like, a fucking dork, a young dumbass, you know, enjoying the sound of her own voice. But yeah, it’s time to hear some fucking music shit.”
I point out that a lot of what has been said about her in the past is that she can get in the way of her own music and talents being heard. “Do you agree with that,” I ask, “or do you think you’ve become the public and the media favorite villain because of, or regardless of, your talent?”
“Well, if I weren’t the person that I am, I don’t think I would have a semblance of the cultural relevance that I do, you know? With black women in music, it’s really easy to be forgotten about when you’re not really subscribing to the whole… I guess, hyper-feminine idea of what a female artist should be. When you’re not being a fantasy of what society thinks the perfect woman is as a female artist, it’s really easy to get cast aside, and even when you are doing that, it’s still really easy to get cast aside. My voice and my opinion is in tandem with my music, [and it’s] something that makes me really special.”
She continues, “I’ve been banned from Twitter for a lot of different reasons, I’ve probably had my Instagram follower count stifled [with] shadow banning censorship, all kinds of things like that. It’s just indicative of the personal power that I have beyond being the musician. And yeah, of course, sometimes you can get a little heated and things could get a little out of hand… [but] that happens for everybody. I have the potential to do more than just music and be more than just a musician.”
We return to the topic of villains, a label that has been thrust upon Azealia for nearly the entire length of her career. I compare her being labelled to the similar ways in which other notable black female musicians, like Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill, have been – and continue to be – portrayed by the public and the media alike. “Why do you think the world needs a villain that fits that trope? That can be cast aside, and need not be heard?”
“I’m not sure, and I kinda don’t really want to know. I think the answer would really scare me.”
It’s important to note that there is a dichotomy amongst the controversies that are part of the Azealia Banks story. There are the feuds, which are fodder for gossip sites and social media, and then there are the less-publicized instances during which Banks has consistently made the public and the media reflect on themselves and their unchallenged consumption of popular culture. Her first famous feud was with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, with Banks calling out Iggy’s “blaccent” and questionable lyrics. At a time when appropriation, racism (particularly misogynoir), and the patriarchy weren’t topics of any mainstream conversation, Banks was more or less shunned and largely condescended to.
“You’ve always been outspoken about white patriarchal injustices before it was a mainstream thing to discuss. This is obviously something that’s very much at the forefront right now, but you were ostracized for it. How do you feel about that?” I ask her.
“I mean I, myself, and the conversation… I don’t know, not to sound arrogant or whatever, but I guess I’ve explored enough of those topics in my personal time, and in my mind I’ve done enough research that… I don’t know. I guess when somebody has something new to say about it, then I’ll be interested, but I mean, everyone finds things out in different ways. Everybody grows at their own pace.”
She continues, “I went through my learning journey and it was a bit tumultuous and I think everybody else is having… I don’t know what they’re experiencing, but it’s really shocking when things start to make sense to you. Kind of thinking that that’s just the way things are; like white supremacy, patriarchy, whatever social path system we have here in America. You think that that’s the way things are supposed to be. But then we grow up and you realize that those things are the way they are because of centuries-old planning. It’s really freaky to think about. And I certainly don’t have all the answers for everything.”
I try to diffuse the tension by asking Azealia what she has to say to all of her fans, especially those who have stuck around her through all the difficult times. “I love you guys so much. This summer is going to be great. The music’s great.”
The music is great, but that’s never been the issue with Banks. From “212” to the debut single from Fantasea II, “Anna Wintour” (an anthem as diverse and as impactful as her general repertoire), her consistent delivery of experimental tracks is what keeps Azealia a fan and critic “underdog” favorite, regardless of all the controversy that comes along with her. “I think the little mermaid is growing up a bit,” she says. Whether the world will see that too remains to be seen.
For more of our features, read our chat with dancer Mette Towley on her big break with N.E.R.D. right here.