Azealia Banks, The Plug, Sheffield
The Black Keys, Alexandra Palace, London
The rapper who topped the 'NME' Cool List last year is fierce, fast-tongued and full of herself
Sunday 12 February 2012
When David Bowie gave his famous "Hi, I'm Bi" interview to Melody Maker 40 years ago, he can't have imagined that bisexuality would still be a headline-making issue deep into the 21st century.
But when Azealia Banks revealed she swings both ways, on the heels of similar statements from Nicki Minaj, Jessie J and Lady Gaga, it caused ripples from the New York Times to The Huffington Post.
What's really remarkable about Banks, a 21-year-old rapper from Harlem, isn't so much the direction of her sexuality as its force. On tracks like "Barbie Shit", a track which puts the "rude" into "rudimentary", she takes a lascivious glee in ordering you to "lick my clit and tell me where the money is". The word coy isn't in Azealia's dictionary.
Of course, this is nothing new: Azealia Banks is merely following a long tradition of the potty-mouthed, predatory female in black music that runs from Millie Jackson through Patra, Lil' Kim and Khia. But it has caught the attention of white hipsters, and Banks topped the NME's Cool List in 2011.
The history of hip hop courting the indie dollar hasn't always been a happy one, ever since Credit To The Nation sampled Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a trick rappers feel obliged to repeat at every festival every summer with soul-crushing predictability. Banks, who has been known to cover songs by Interpol and Ladytron, clearly has one eye on that market herself, although those two choices do at least demonstrate exquisite taste.
And so, on a cold night in South Yorkshire, she finds herself warming up for her opening slot on the NME Awards Tour. Fierce, fast-tongued and full of herself, Banks – backed only by Cosmo, her DJ – threshes her impressive hair, whips off a crop-top bearing a legend unprintable in a family newspaper, and strips down to a rainbow bikini top to deliver the track from which those words are taken. "212", by far her most celebrated tune to date, marries quasi-Brazilian shuffling beats with dirty electro squeaks, and has Banks playing the role of the prowling woman-stealer, threatening to "Kick it with ya bitch who come from Parisian ...". In the next breath, she has the front to ask "What's your dick like, homie? What are you into?"
There's an old cliché, usually attributed to American entertainer Eddie Cantor, that: "It takes 20 years to become an overnight success." If that's true, then The Black Keys are ahead of schedule. Eleven years and seven albums into their career, the blues-rockers from Akron, Ohio suddenly find themselves at the top, or somewhere very near it.
The duo of Pat Carney (drums) and Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitar) are ending their UK tour by selling out three nights at a snowbound Alexandra Palace. Their current album El Camino has shifted five million copies worldwide. Part of this rapid rise is to do with licensing: tracks such as "Lonely Boy" have been ubiquitous on sports shows, dramas, trailers and adverts. They even wrote a song for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack.
But it was with their first collaboration with Danger Mouse, 2008's Attack & Release, that things started to get interesting, with such modern gadgets as keyboards – lord preserve us – being allowed into the mix. 2009's Blakroc project, on which they collaborated with rap acts such as RZA and Mos Def, expanded their horizons, and they've been on a roll ever since.
Now elevated to a level where they can headline festivals, much is made of their power as a live act. They're invariably spoken of as an unpretentious, hard-rocking, word-of-mouth draw, a sort of hipster-friendly version of the Dave Matthews Band or Hootie and the Blowfish. In reality, they're a bit of a charisma void, rocking out in standard-issue indie attire underneath a sparse spray of globular light fittings and flashing strobes, Auerbach doubling up in sympathy with his own riffs while Carney bashes his basic fours.
It's impossible to argue with the neck-snapping force of chunk-rock monsters such as "Your Touch", one of the survivors from the pre-Danger Mouse days. They've got that minimalism/ brutalism nexus nailed down tight. More surprising is their new-found love of Glam Rock. Tonight's opener "Howlin' For You" has heavy shades of Gary Glitter's "Rock'n'Roll", while the glorious "Gold on the Ceiling" recalls "The Crunch" by The Rah Band and encore "Everlasting Light" summons the ghosts of T Rex's "Mambo Sun". Give 'em another 10 years and they might even discover disco.
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