Why you’re still listening to Azealia Banks

Sunday, December 6, 2020 - 1:02pm

Banks in the music video for her 2018 release "Anna Wintour" (NOSELL)

Banks in the music video for her 2018 release "Anna Wintour" (NOSELL) Buy this photo
Entertainment One

This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-sideFor a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.

Though maybe not an A-list celebrity anymore (she’s too merciless for invitations to ornate parties or wine nights in gilded mansions), Harlem-based rapper Azealia Banks has stuck around. She’s still in your friend’s Spotify feed, albeit normally on private mode so it’s hard to know unless you bring it up. She has maintained just under two million monthly listeners on Spotify (with no mixtape release in 3 years), has been nominated for dozens of awards and this year even had an unreleased demo, “Competition,” become particularly popular on TikTok with over 53,000 videos recorded to the track.

What makes this interesting isn’t that Banks has lost her talent. Her most recent single, “Black Madonna,” peels back her typical cover of electronic clamor to reveal her effortless flow and vicious lyrical jabs as much as ever. Rather, Banks has been canceled endlessly (and rightfully so) on Twitter and its compatriot social media sites. To list all of her transgressions would itself take up an entire article; a comprehensive list on Wikipedia will show the long-winded extent of Bank’s controversy. The sins range from impressively articulate, narrative-length jabs at Kanye West and Iggy Azalea to homophobic and transphobic posts that have resulted in temporary bans from Twitter.

Skipping discourse about ignoring Banks’ canceled status or “separating the art from the artist” — because these mental gymnastics are the ultimate reasons people are still willing to listen in the face of controversy, and have been written about time and time again — what drags people back to Broke With Expensive Taste? Unlike listeners’ failed campaigns to cancel Kanye West or Chris Brown that seemed to have inflicted no effective damage, with Banks, listeners have the unique foresight to slip into private mode (as two of my friends have confessed that they do) but still are consuming the music. People are wary enough to avoid association but are still seeking tracks like “Anna Wintour.”

A combination of factors likely account for these contradictory habits. For one, the nature of Banks’ music — rabid hip house covered in brash lyricism — is an amalgamation perhaps best-suited to engage with her degree of aggression and controversy. The style isn’t constructed for the type of close listening that so many personality-centered pop stars and thoughtful alternative artists elicit. Listening doesn’t feel like engaging with a conversation; it’s something amusing to consume, like what you’d put on to dance around to after getting good news. Half of Banks’ lyrics are so muddled, anyways, almost obscured completely by the heavy blanket of the beats she creates and sticky in the way they gum together as she raps straight through the song, so the sense that clicking play on something you’ll need to think about feels absent when listening. The overwhelming consensus among supporters online runs along the lines of this, too: She’s immoral, she’s crazy, but she makes good, irreplaceable beats.

This isn’t to say that the writing on Broke With Expensive Taste or mixtape Slay-Z is underdeveloped. In fact, Banks’ ability to lay out brisk, fiery bars with full-throated aggression makes the listening, in the half of the lyrics that are comprehensible, even more difficult to turn down. The lyrics don’t feel profound; they feel sassy and fun to shout along with. From “212” (“And when I hit that dip get your camera / You could see I’ve been that bitch since the Pamper,”) to demo “Competition” (“She’s like, ‘Hey where’ve you been honey?’ / What it look like, bitch? Getting this money!”), Banks pendulum-swings from creative self-flattery to genius retorts. You can find another poet, but the dancefloor hip hop that moves these tracks, and the spiked lyrics in them, couldn’t have been made by anyone else. They’re addictive, full of lines you wish you would’ve thought of yourself, and that just makes them more fun to get lost in.

From the get-go, too, Banks has told the world she’s controversial and doesn’t care, which likely suggests some self-selection by fans to explain her continued following. Her bellicose genre-melding and lyrics (even when unintelligible) ask listeners not to take her too seriously. But her listeners probably already didn’t care. Maybe they lauded Banks for edginess. Her first single and most streamed song, “212,” uses the c-word a grand total of 9 times. She’s been tweeting belligerently nearly her entire career. Her songs (see “Heavy Metal and Reflective”) have always been exaggeratedly explicit.

Which is all to say that Azealia Banks is still creating unique, quarrelsome, sharp music that blends rap with the beats you lose your mind to in clubs, and that people are still consuming it. At this point, it feels like this might turn out to be a small-scale Trisha Paytas phenomenon — “uncancelable,” so to say, for many listeners, with revelations changing things only for those who have gone into hiding on private mode. The collective decision to “cancel” Banks, and stop streaming until she owns up to her actions, might be easier to achieve if anyone in the industry was mixing like she is. Nobody is, and until then, the streaming will continue.

Managing Arts Editor John Decker can be reached at jndecker@umich.edu.  


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