The real deal: How New York rap sensation Azealia Banks became a style icon
The hype is huge – almost as huge as her ego. Will Self discovers why hip-hop hurricane Azealia Banks is a one-off– while the New Review's Style Shrinks put her unique sense of fashion under the microscope.
Sunday 18 March 2012
"We lived in Harlem just, like, at the beginning of its gentrification, but my mom had our apartment since she was 18, she worked a retail job, but she worked on commission, so she made like, maybe, $75,000 or $80,000 a year, but our rent was so cheap since it was, like, rent-controlled, so our rent was, like, $300 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, so we always had extra money. I grew up very spoiled... like, I had everything: I had computers, I had videogames, I had dress-up clothes, I had lipstick, I had heels – not like, actual heels, play heels – I had dolls, I had birds, I had hamsters. My mom did a good job of keeping me stimulated."
So you can't really do the... "'I've come from the ghetto and it's really hard' thing? Well, I came from the ghetto, but it wasn't hard for us, y'know what I mean? Because I lived on the block with kids who were, like, crack babies. I had other aunts and uncles who lived in other parts of Harlem, and I'd go with my cousins and we'd be out on the street, y'know. I had a healthy juxtaposition of, like, good and bad."
Here we have Azealia Banks in her own words, transcribed from a recording I made in the plush schmoozing room above the White Cube gallery in Hoxton. The 20-year-old rapper, whose irrepressibly jaunty – and equally salacious – chant "212" is a weird paean to her native island, has come to rest on our sceptr'd one. She told me that, "like, Europe and the UK have just been sucking me up", and that she was currently living in London – though when I pressed for details she would only vouchsafe, "South-west."
But the important word in the above is "juxtaposition", because this is one smart young woman. "212" may contain such apparent solecisms as "I just wanna sip that punch with ya peeps and/ sit in that lunch if ya treatin'/ Kick it with ya bitch/ who come from Parisian/ She know where I get mine from and the season," yet when I asked Banks for an exegesis, her tone was professorial. She told me that "212" was largely recounted from the point of view of a hugely self-confident Manhattanite, whose street smarts and farouche attractions lead her to be pursued by all ages, ethnicities, genders and orientations, until the point in the song where she considers what a waste of time this gnarly hurly-burly is.
Professor Banks was poised, unflappable and utterly unembarrassed when it came to explaining the distinction between the c-word and the k-word (the c-word spelled with a k), both of which bedizen her lyrics. Apparently the former is soi-disant "nasty vagina" and therefore a synonym for "bitch", whereas the latter is gay argot for the desirably feminine. Properly corrected, I ventured that possibly her material was more acceptable on our foul-mouthed side of the pond than in her own linguistically correct homeland. But Professor Banks nixed this, saying there were always going to be haters everywhere. I thought I'd been doing pretty well at engaging with her outré material, but when I mused that I probably wasn't the ideal audience for songs such as "212" and "L8r", Banks observed tartly that half of her fans were, like, middle-aged white guys. I suppose I could've bridled at this stereotyping, but she speedily set me straight, pointing out that for a long time her songs existed only in the iTunes libraries of record-company execs.
Banks's sound has now broken out from this digitised ghetto: she has been seized upon by NME and recently finished its multi-date tour with other hot new acts. After 45 minutes in her presence, alternately infuriated, charmed and deeply impressed, I told her: "You're going to be huge – but probably first you should consider being normal size."
She is indeed a rearview-mirror dingle-dangle of a woman, but her ego is huge. She's also extremely beautiful, yet she's no ingénue: she attended the LaGuardia performing arts school and cut her teeth early doing musical theatre with the Tada! Youth Theater. When, in the course of our talk, she burst spontaneously into song, I almost swooned at the coloratura and melodic purity of her voice.
I would say look out for Banks in the future, but that would be more of a solecism than any of her k-words, because it will soon be absolutely impossible to avoid her.
Azealia Banks's debut EP, '212', is out next Sunday
Gemma Hayward says: Cat-eye sunnies are the shape of the season, so top marks here. The hot-pink shade ties in nicely with the ultra-feminine look for summer, without watering down Azealia's punchy personality.
Hugh montgomery says: From her twitter feed to her sunglasses, (totally Gary Larson's Far Side, btw) Banks's casual battiness puts all those "I'm Mad Me" pop tarts to shame.
Gemma says: A vintage-style shearling jacket dresses up this simple cartoon T-shirt a treat – part of Banks's signature style is adding pizzazz to the most unlikely of pieces.
Hugh says: Effortlessly eclectic. Should we compare this to a summer's day, it would be one soundtracked by rare funk cuts and featuring unfeasibly convivial games of park Frisbee.
Gemma says: Those who dare to wear a pair of classic Daisy Duke denim cut-offs usually do so because they know they have great legs. As far as that goes, there's very little to add here. Bravo!
Hugh says: Because, come rain or shine, there's a never a bad time for denim hotpants when you're in training for the role of festivals queen.
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