The Squandered Potential of Azealia Banks

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For all the things that can — and have — been said about Azealia Banks, it’s hard to deny that she’s incredibly talented. Over the course of roughly five years, her music has shown itself to be a smorgasboard of house, UK garage, pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Bar for bar, verse for verse, there are few people since the Y2K scare that are as comfortable and effortless when it comes to laying down an adroit sixteen. Azealia Banks is Gabby Douglas on the track. And in music, who best captures the spirit of black millennial downtown cool better than Azealia Banks? Her music is basically Vashtie and Paris is Burning emulsified into a 4/4 time signature for the age of Obama.

The problem is that she’s as gifted at making music as she is at being an asshole, and that comes in direct conflict with how we engage with her music. Virtually every time she logs onto Twitter, it’s as if she’s dousing her career in kerosene and taking a lighter to it.

In a three-year-old story in the Guardian about a Banks scuffle, the lede reads: “Azealia Banks is quickly becoming better-known for her beefs than for her raps.” She’s been in plenty more beefs since, often adding true malice into the mix of her frequent outbursts. Banks has said things so awful we find ourselves begrudgingly siding with Sarah Palin, a woman with the same IQ as a half-empty can of Greater Value tomato soup. For someone who identifies as queer, Banks has an odd propensity to dabble in homophobia, continuing to do so even after other queer folks take exception.

In the midst of making some solid arguments about black men’s role in misogynoir, and some not so solid points laden in Hotepisms, she called Wale what I like to call the “Hard R,” wishing that he would become a part of the prison industrial complex because that’s where black “men like [him] belong.” In the midst of defending black culture and decrying black violence, she tweeted that Bill Cosby’s cadre of accusers are lying . That’s not to say that she doesn’t occasionally offer up salient points: on Hot 97 in late 2014, for example, she gave a thoughtful and tearful explanation on why cultural appropriation is so hurtful. Too often, though, her points are obfuscated by hate speech and pure, uncut, stupidity — even during the aforementioned Hot 97 interview, Banks called T.I. a “shoe-shining coon.”

Banks’ most recent spat with former One Directioner Zayn Malik involved a number of racist and homophobic remarks, and on the same day she also took jabs at grime and UK rappers. This led to her dismissal from the grime-heavy “Rinse Born & Bred” music festival in the UK, public embarrassment at the hands of a 14-year-old Disney star, and the suspension of her Twitter account. As Skai Jackson (the Disney star in question) dragged Banks on Twitter, the internet marveled and gawked at this slow trainwreck, and plenty of people declared sadly that they were “done” with Banks and her antics.

Banks is at once aggressive, loud, vulgar, arrogant, emotional, and defensive. On the surface, this behavior is as annoying to some as it is exhilarating to others — it’s the same spirit that is intricately tied to what makes her music so great. The vulgarity and her rebellious spirit is wholly reminiscent of Kanye West — an unquestionable talent who can’t seem to cure his diarrhea of the mouth. But with Banks, there’s more bullshit than beats, which is becoming a problem.

For Banks’ fans, consistently being subjected to unabashed racism, sexism, misguided politics, homophobia, and Beyoncé bad-mouthing points the spotlight away from her art and mostly serves to make the artist herself unlikable. Her music is fantastic, but the shenanigans are exhausting, and make it difficult to justify the effort to support the artist. She has no remorse.

Still, to understand Banks, one must consider who she is and where she comes from.Azealia Banks’ past has made 24 years seem like a lifetime. At just 17 years old, she was stripping to pay the bills, dating men almost 40 years her senior. She lost her father at the age of two. Banks’ mother was verbally, physically and emotionally abusive to her and her sisters. Banks has recalled having fistfights with her mother as a child, and her mother beating her with a baseball bat. This trauma is part of who she is. Our parents and life events fuck us all up — some more than others, obviously — and they become a part of who we are. Banks is a fighter; it’s been ingrained in her since her formative years. She’s scrappy, and claws for what she wants. But these days, sadly, the bullied underdog from Harlem with this unmitigated star potential has become the bully.

And that’s a shame. If nothing else, “212” remains a wonder, the perfect soundtrack to a night in New York, a distillation of the feeling of the city when everyone’s hopped up on hedonism, thirsty for revelry and debauchery, to dance a little bit and sweat a whole lot more. It’s unfortunate that its author might soon become a footnote, because as she herself says in the song: “They’ll forget your name soon/ And won’t nobody be to blame but yourself.”