CAN’T TELL ME NOTHING
YOU MIGHT RECOGNIZE AZEALIA BANKS FOR HER ECCENTRIC GARBS AND TIT-FOR-TAT TWITTER BEEFS. BUT POP’S FEISTY YOUNG FIRECRACKER’S MUSIC IS HER MOST EXPLOSIVE ASSET. WATCH HER CATCH FIRE Words: Tracy Garraud l Photos: Smallz and Raskind
ANY COMBINATION OF THE following is likely to occur during an Azealia Banks studio session: shouting bouts of random phonetics, conversations with herself (or alter-ego Mermaid Banks?), hysterical laughter, tears of frustration. There’s no entourage lounging—the 21-year-old Harlemite may even shoo the engineer (“Doing all kinds of weird shit, you don’t want anyone to see that,” she says). Syllables slowly become rhymes and—up to three weeks later—a twerk-happy rap track is born. It’s a meticulous, lengthy process, one that’s indicative of the singing rapper’s intense passion for her craft. Yet, despite a Dr. Dre–lite precision and recording sessions that fall somewhere between sacred and psychotic, it’s Banks’ big mouth that’s drawing the most attention. The U.K.’s adopted darling has used Twitter as a blow horn to detail her repugnance for rivals Kreayshawn and Iggy Azalea. Brows hit the ceiling in April when she responded to T.I.’s on-air defense of his Grand Hustle artist Iggy by calling him a “fucking clown.” Another shot went off less than a month later, when she blasted Lil’ Kim for not fulfilling a collaboration request. Then, in June, Azealia fired her manager Troy Carter—Lady Gaga’s handler—adding a Twitter flip-off before (briefly) self-destructing her ever-ratchet @AzealiaBanks account. “I’m not getting the respect I deserve,” Banks adamantly stated in May, for her first VIBE cover interview. “I’m done trying to ask for it… because I don’t need it.” When the conversation turns to her music, though, only the hearing impaired wouldn’t admit to the impulsive badass having an atypical, house-hop sound that’s completely infectious and particular to her. Azealia’s first single, “212,” and Fantasea mixtape prove that effortlessly, and when she’s not being carped, the wanderlust reveals herself to be quite charming. All reasons for why the new chick on the block graces the cover of VIBE’s 17th annual JUICE issue, sprawled in sand with frequent collaborator and Banks believer Diplo. Because once her debut LP Broke With Expensive Taste drops later this year, the music will surely play louder than the controversy. Until then, the young rogue has a candid message for naysayers and unfamiliars: “Y’all niggas just got a problem,” she declares. “And her name is Azealia Fucking Banks.”
VIBE: You’ve come a long way since riding the Uptown 4 train. How are your peers reacting to your early success? AZEALIA BANKS: The energy I’m getting is kinda, “Yo, what up?” and keep it moving. There’s no like… I don’t know. Why do you think there’s hesitance? Because I’m kinda this UFO that floats above wide ground. And nobody really gets it, but they see this weird floating object there [laughs]. When I spoke to Missy, she was like, “Yo, where did you come from?” Because you usually see people on their come up. And now people are waiting to see if the UFO will crash? Sometimes it is scary because you drop down in this territory where people feel like it’s their space. So then it’s kinda like, “Errr, hi…” And they don’t know how to react to you, and you don’t really know how to react to them. But they like your shit and you respect their shit. And it’s cool. Besides feeling territorial, there are folks who take the hierarchal, respect-your-elders adage very seriously. Is that voided once someone disses you? When people come at my head it doesn’t faze me enough to be sad. It’s just, “Listen motherfucker, let me tell you about yourself and what I got and am about to get. You’re trying to knock me off my feet; I’m trying to stand tall, ’cause I’m here for a reason. I wasn’t even thinking about y’all, y’all came at me.”
Right, but not every 21-year-old newbie has the balls to publicly mouth off at T.I. Were you raised to be this fearless?
My mother was always like, “Anybody say something you don’t like, punch them in the mouth. Do it!” [Laughs] If I had a fight, when she came home I would get another ass whupping just for being a little bird. And she’d be like, “Why you letting these people bring you down?” I was a really fresh little girl, always arguing back, trying lipstick on, trying to shake my ass—knowing in the back of my head I’m gonna get fucked up [by my mother]. But fuck it, I wanna get fucked up.
Do you think your American buzz so far has been built more off controversy than music?
Of course, because Americans are distracted by shit like that. It’s like, “Listen, T.I., if I was a fucking boy you wouldn’t say anything to me.” But when I’m a girl and I say something back, the media wants to turn it into all these different things. Rappers beef all the time. I said what I said about [Iggy Azalea] and kept it moving. Then a month later you said what you said. And it keeps coming up. Leave it alone. I didn’t say she couldn’t rap. I said something very real. Out of everything, she had to [call herself] “a runaway slave master”? C’mon, that’s not swag. That’s not fly shit.
And that’s all it was. For T.I. to drag me through the dirt… It’s silly. In Europe they leave it alone and keep playing my songs on the radio and I keep getting booked for fashion shows because they’re about the art. All I’m doing is making myself look bad by getting engaged with y’all because no one in Europe gives a fuck about y’all. All I’m doing is giving y’all niggas exposure. So if you notice I’ve backed up off Twitter the past days [laughs].
Speaking of that wonderful social network, that’s the main thing you’re slammed for—calling out other artists on there.
Exactly. And that’s the only thing niggas could hold against me, because I’m hot. So you know what? I’ma back off and about random shit and make these records. I’m trying to just reach out, do a little record…
Which brings us to Lil’ Kim. Why address her publicly instead of sending a private message or e-mail?
That’s what we did, and that shit is over. Yo, listen, [Lil’ Kim], this black cloud you got over you—don’t try to push that over me. You can keep that, because as soon as I released “Jumanji” is as soon everybody forgot about you. I have my hand on the dial; I can control how hot and cold you are right now. So I’m not even going to give it to you. I tried to make a legitimate track with you, tried to collaborate. I was bigging her up and she keeps throwing it back in my face. I tried.
Do you regret getting into these Twitter clashes?
Of course, because it’s e-thugging… Who wants to look like that? But how else am I gonna reach y’all? I don’t have a T.I. to get on a radio show and defend me; I’m the one behind me. Y’all expect me to agree like, “Oh yea, I’m wack. I only have one song.” That’s one song y’all niggas don’t fucking have. You might win some, but you just lost one.
Kanye certainly doesn’t think you’re wack. Tell me about the time you guys first met in London last year.
He hit me up like, “You’re mad talented. What do you eat for breakfast?” The whole conversation was pretty dense—two Geminis in one room. So it was so many ideas flying.
We spent the whole day together, but the best part was dinner. We’re eating out the same plates with chopsticks, and he’s freestyling for me. I was like, “Oh shit, this is real!” You know how you smile so much your face hurts? And you just feel so busted like… [screeches].
Ha, I do. Did you freestyle for him?
No! I was so nervous like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to say anything wack.” Like, I start rapping and he looks at me like, “Nah, bitch, chill, this is my show.”
[Laughs] I doubt that’d happen. Do you place a lot of pressure on yourself when it’s just you, the pen and the pad?
It depends. If it’s something really important where I’m asking someone to pay money, yeah. When you officially release something it has to be as good as it can be. And sometimes you have to move on or you’ll really drive yourself crazy, especially because you get self-conscious and think people won’t like something and talk shit. But I wanted my album to be really detailed, so I was ready to spend three weeks just on one song, like fuck it.
What are you doing during those three weeks?
Mapping out phonetically what I want [my flow] to sound like—shouting out syllables and consonants—then I’ll flirt with a few concepts. Once I pick a concept, I can finally finish the song. If you’re trying to build something that stands out, you have to create your own template. It takes patience and brainpower, and a lot of analyzing. But once I get it rhythmically and musically together I can do anything I want.
What do you find yourself analyzing the most?
Making sure I constantly try different things. Knowing the right time to put in repetition, stuff like that. Like on “212,” I’ll go on a vowel sound over and over because I feel like that’s what makes shit stick.
Ironically, the New York rappers earning the most success now are the ones who get criticized for abandoning their “roots.” How do you feel about that?
All of these New York niggas trying to rap on this “real New York” shit—none of these niggas going anywhere. The only nigga from New York who got on was [A$AP Rocky], doing some South shit. The only bitch who got on since Nicki Minaj was doing some Euro shit. Fuck y’all. New York is full of mad haters.
This seems to be the sentiment older, more elitist hip-hop heads share.
What the old heads don’t understand is that my generation grew up on AOL, so we had access to all of this shit. How the fuck you think I know about all these indie bands and every single music scene in the world? It’s called the Internet.
So you’re not weary of wavering between pop and hip-hop after seeing the side eyes Nicki received?
Not at all. The hip-hop world is used to a certain lifestyle that Nicki Minaj and me are trying to escape from. It’s weird because they like you when they can still see you, but once you try to ascend, it’s like, “What. The. Fuck?” Because they can’t reach you anymore, and they’re not rising with you. They miss that comfort and it takes a while to get used to it, but eventually they’ll understand. That’s the power of art. Art pushes culture and forward thinking. Right now, if you listen to Nicki, she’s really making good pop music and is definitely up there with Gaga and Katy—exactly where she wants to be. But the hip-hop world maybe didn’t know that’s where she wanted to be [laughs].
Tell me about the folks who get you—how would you describe your fans?
I think my true, hard-core fans are people who enjoy being bad. People who enjoy drinking and smoking, but wanna get it together and just don’t know how. When you really listen to my music you hear a girl who’s going through the motions. She’s experiencing men, having money, not having money, people who are trying to tell her she’s not cute, people telling her she can’t rap, she can’t dance… She’s really dealing with life. I’m not some little light-skinned bitch out here. It’s a young Black girl doing this for herself, by herself. Y’all can’t keep trying to pin me up against the wall. Hip-hop has to help me not let this slip through my hands.