Azealia Banks is a 24-year-old New York rapper who calls herself a womanist and wants reparations for black people. Recently, she endorsed Donald Trump. “If the United States of America is an aircraft on its way down, (which it seems to be) I must put my own air mask on before I assist others,” she wrote in reference to his immigration policy. Later, she tweeted, “I have no hope for America. It is what it is. Capitalist, consumerist, racist land of make believe,” and “Donald trump is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him.”
These statements have, like many of Banks’s actions, been written off as trolling by some. But there’s reason to think them sincere. “I have no hope for America” is certainly far from “Make America Great Again,” yet both demonstrate deep disgruntlement with the status quo. Both demonstrate the belief that Trump can cause real change, though Banks’s belief is that the change will be purely destructive. And while Banks and Trump may be ideologically opposed, it’s not too hard to draw tactical similarities between the two. In politics and in art, shocking bluster has power.
Banks has made fantastic music throughout her five years in the public eye, most recently on this past Friday’s mixtape Slay-Z, where her slick, profane boasts over pop-rave beats will help listeners feel invulnerable for a few minutes at a time. Her songs, though, have long been overshadowed in the media by the insults she has slung toward other public figures. She blasts people from Lady Gaga to Lil Kim to her own record label based on alleged slights toward her, often resorting to comments about their looks and their presumed sex life. She also uses the word “faggot” to present homosexuals as weak and demonize the “white gay media”—which continues covering her because, to her delight, she retains a sizable gay fan base.
Diagnosing a public figure’s motivations is inherently impossible, but she has, at least, stated the reasons behind her provocations. Read her interviews and her tweets and you’ll see ideology, though not always a consistent one, that represents a radical response to the notion that America was built on the exploitation of women and minorities and, especially, minority women. She sees this unjust history as relevant even to her violent altercations with flight attendants and the incident where she’s alleged to have bitten a nightclub security guard’s breast. You can argue that she’s abusing history in citing racism and sexism at every slight. But you can also sense an internally logical system of justification. If you have no hope for the society you’re in, why play by any of its rules?
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s not a lot of overt politics in her songs, though transgression of all sorts of norms is a huge part of her appeal. Her breakout single, the modern classic “212,” is the most joyful ode to the word “cunt” ever recorded. My favorite song of hers, “Esta Noche,” featuring a Montell Jordan sample and what sounds like a fire alarm, is about seducing a guy while viciously insulting his girlfriend. The more evil she seems in her music, the more infectious she becomes.
Slay-Z, the mixtape she posted online on Friday after claiming her former studio engineer was leaking its songs out of spite (no surprise, right?), is only mildly evil—not her best work, but pretty enjoyable. Its focus is mostly about how fabulous she is for breaking rules. The first track, “Riot,” has a sweeping, melodic hook that could rule radio with polished production and promotion from the music industry that has rarely gotten along with. “I like unrest, understand?” she raps helpfully. “I like conflict and command.” On a the trancey ballad, “Used to Being Alone,” she uses her wispy, bewitching singing voice to air heartbreak—a reminder of the humanity in the troublemaking.
Perhaps the most interesting thing here, as has been the case before, is the way she feminizes typically male rap swagger. The cover art is her topless, showing off the boob job she has bragged about on social media. Rick Ross shows up for the rowdy “Big Talk” and shouts out Banks’s recent Playboy spread, whose existence becomes yet-more-provocative the more you think about it. The catchiest thing, “Queen of the Club,” is the kind of glistening, by-the-numbers party track that belies the idea that she isn’t interested in commercial success; she just wants to achieve it on her terms, as telegraphed by when she intentionally mispronounces “Versace.”
Just three days after Slay-Z’s release, Banks made headlines again, this time for threatening and hurling gay slurs at paparazzi. It’s another reminder of why her antics often seem to be undermining her music career, and how disgust with a person’s public persona can influence the reception of their work. But you don’t have to look very far these days for examples of the flip side of that disgust: the allure of blatant jerkiness—the idea that speaking one’s mind, no matter how vile its contents, is noble. It’s an attitude that refuses to try and improve the world other than through conflict, and if its implications as politics are frightening, its power as pop is sometimes undeniable.
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