Artist Spotlight: Azealia Banks and the Second Coming of the Female Emcee

It’s not that female rappers ever left us, it’s just that everyone else stopped paying attention. See, I have this weird fantasy where it’s the 90s again, and I’m kicking it on a stoop with my girl gang and a boom box. In this fantasy, someone just made a mix tape, and now we’re bumping to the likes of Missy, Lauryn, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lil Kim and maybe some Salt-N-Pepa. But this isn’t actually what the 90s were like for me. I spent most of the 90s on playgrounds, because I was in elementary school. And yet there’s this weird pang of nostalgia for this phenomenon I never actually experienced, when female rappers took the mic and took the spotlight without depending on rolling with the boys to find exposure. They came out with the same bombast and braggadocio as their male counterparts, but they had one advantage: no matter how much the men could brag and rap about their bitches and hoes, they would never know what it was like to be a woman.

actually found on azealiabanks.tumblr.com

Unsurprisingly, it turns out the that nostalgia was not mine alone, and that, actually, a whole generation of women had been awaiting the return of the female emcee. Enter Azealia Banks: a New York girl with serious Harlem swag, who at 20 years old is the newest person to join the club of women who make me wonder what I’ve done with my life so far. Her talent is what’s going to blow her up, but her age tells a whole new story about a generation gap in hip hop, where the Female Emcee has been lying dormant for a decade, waiting anxiously to be awoken.

Banks, whose debut single “212″ exploded on YouTube, now surpassing 4 million views, is part of a generation of women who grew up knowing that visibility was possible. They’re taking what they saw and creating their own meaning, re-shaping and re-interpreting that which came before them. These women are now coming into their own, creating their own music, and getting attention for it, and Azealia Banks is the perfect emcee to usher in the movement.

Hearing her lyrics, watching her videos and reading her interviews make it clear that Azealia (formerly known as Miss Bank$) has what it takes to deftly and effortlessly embody what it means to be an outspoken woman and a pack leader in 2012. She’s vulgar but articulate, sexy but not sexualized; she’s smart, aggressive, ambitious, sassy and a little rude, carrying it all with the sense of humor that keeps us alive.

“212″ is a straight up throwdown —  a showcase of all her skills laid over a tweaked out beat produced by Lazy Jay. In just under three and a half minutes, Banks transitions seamlessly between two styles of rhyme cut up by an ominously sultry bridge. But she doesn’t waste all her talent on just one track. Her follow-up, “Liquorice,” confronts the objectification that black girls face at the hands of white dudes, calling them out and taking charge of the situation. It’s undeniably self-aware. Knowing that objectification is inevitable, especially in the hip hop game, she knows it’s not about denying or ignoring the fact, it’s about being a badass in the face of it. It’s calling objectification what it is, turning it on its head, and spitting on it in more ways than one.

And if she doesn’t already sound relevant to your interests, check out her Diplo-produced track, “Seventeen,” in which she raps over a sample of Ladytron’s track of the same name. She also contributed vocals to “Shady Love” by the Scissor Sisters and has a collaboration with Lana del Rey in the works, which will probably be crafted to make our hearts and minds explode.

Banks’ commentary often verges on the theatrical, a trait that she refers to as “kinda, like, obvious,” potentially owing to her former drama student status at Laguardia High School for the Performing Arts. The school also happens to be the alma mater of actor Adrien Brody, spurring an endless litany of comparisons between the two. (Just kidding.) Nicki Minaj also went there, but she and Banks are so different in style and flavor that it’s ridiculous and maybe even a little offensive to be constantly comparing the two. She’s not Nicki Minaj any more than she is Adrien Brody, and she’s becoming famous just by being herself: an anti-glamour loudmouth chasing big-time success without mercy or apology, because, let’s face it, who has time to apologize when you’re becoming famous this fucking fast?

Her nonchalant confidence almost borders on arrogance, which, in turn, almost borders on naivete, which reveals itself in her die-hard optimism: “If you have a good lawyer, you can figure your shit out, get a good-ass deal, and do it the way you want to do it,” she explained to Spin Magazine. ”You don’t have to be on an indie label and eat ramen and make an album on some bullshit-ass mic in some dirty basement. Like, y’all can have that shit.” Whether that’s true or not has yet to be proven, though the odds seem to be in her favor. She just got signed to Universal Records and was profiled by The New York Times at the beginning of this month, where I guess you could say she came out as bisexual. “I’m not trying to be, like, the bisexual lesbian rapper,” she told them. “I don’t live on other peoples’ terms.” Her Twitter, whose bio simply reads “lololol,” is one of only five followed by strange genius Kanye West, and while in Europe, she  caught the eye of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who took her under his wing and gave her a weird sweater with his face on it as an homage to the video for “212.” Here she is performing at his house, chillin’ with a bunch of rich white people around what appears to be some sort of upside down chandelier protruding from the floor.

Success is shaping up to be a strange but interesting picture for Banks, and maybe that’s because we’re not really sure what success looks like for a young female rapper in 2012. But whatever it looks or sounds like, the name she builds will hopefully be more than just a credit to herself, it will be a paved road down which future female rappers may stomp, holding their boom boxes high.

Avatar of katrina

Katrina is a 23-year-old grrrl splitting her time between her great homeland of New York City and Washington DC. She loves activism and hates sleep, which is convenient because neither of those things really allows for the other anyway. She thinks that slang is rad. As a math equation (with words, because she is bad at math), Katrina would go as such: writer + riot grrrl = wrioter grrrl. When not manifesting itself as a mathematical equation, Katrina’s life usually reads out like a lesbian coming-of-age novel, though sometimes she wishes it were more like a bad 1950s lesbian pulp fiction story. Also, she really, really, truly believes that the revolution is upon us. Come read her rantings about it on her twitter and blog!

Contact: katrina[at]autostraddle.com

katrina has written 64 articles for us.

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    I’ve been waiting for Autostraddle to say something about Azealia Banks! I cannot get enough of her. She’s bringing me back to hip-hop in a big way. Thank you for bringing up how insulting it is to compare her to Nicki Minaj. People tend to lump them together, but they’re coming from different styles, attitudes, and influences.

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    She’s great and all but she played here recently and she was on stage for 24 minutes which is a bit brief, and she never said the set was ending, she sort of just walked off, people were not happy having spent their hard earned money on tickets, I hope it was a one off bad gig, im sure it was!

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    While 212 shows some innovative lyricism and style, it also seems to promote homophobic slurs as a legitimate way to insult a man you don’t like or with whom you are in competition. I mean, check out the lyrics closely and see what you think. I wonder, why is it cool or empowering for a woman to be openly queer/bi/whatever but at the same time to insult a man for be the same?

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