Azealia Banks and the Future of Hip-Hop
Harlem’s Azealia Banks is hailed by critics, indie aficionados and fashionistas as rap’s new It girl, taking the title from mega-sensation Nicki Minaj. Banks has gotten so big so fast that her tracks turned up at Paris fashion shows before she was signed to a record label. Like rap king Kanye West, she has managed to bridge the gap between hip-hop credibility and pop stardom.
Hip-hop emerged in the South Bronx in the late 1970s with such artists as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but it flowered in Harlem and retains deep roots there, from Kurtis Blow in the 1980s to such newcomers as A$AP Rocky. What makes Harlem wunderkind Azealia Banks so astonishing is her talent as a lyricist, her inspired choice of backing tracks to rap over and her brazen bisexuality. Not to mention her unique fashion sense: In the video for her song “212” (directed by Vincent Tsang), for example, she eschews provocative dress and bling for pigtails, a retro Mickey Mouse sweater and cutoff jeans shorts. But with this song, Banks presents a fresh image of a sexually and artistically powerful female rapper (she disses a rival’s manhood by warning that she will bed his girl and outclass him in a rap battle). She is a feminine, sexy, smart and gleefully rude woman in a man’s world, and her playfully deft lyrics, confident flow and aggressive sexuality make “212” a breakout.
The music and fashion worlds have long enjoyed creative cross-pollination. In the 1970s designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren outfitted the Sex Pistols in tartan bondage pants and tees with outrageous slogans, in 1990 Jean Paul Gaultier conceived Madonna’s famous cone-shaped bra, and in the late 1990s Alexander McQueen styled Björk’s intergalactic snow-geisha look for her Homogenic cover. Tommy Hilfiger was the first to tap into hip-hop, outfitting Snoop Dogg, KRS-One and Q-Tip (and earning a place in their songs). Soon rappers like Jay-Z (Rocawear), Sean “Puffy” Combs (Sean John) and Kanye West (DW) debuted their own designer labels. But hip-hop’s latest fashion darling is Azealia Banks. She has performed at the home of Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld to celebrate the launch of his collection for online retailer Net-A-Porter, where she dressed in a cheeky imitation of her host’s signature look: namely, in a white dress shirt, black tie, cropped black suit jacket and sequined black shorts. Banks’s unreleased track “Bambi” was used for the Thierry Mugler fall 2012 menswear show, and she has been styled and photographed for V, Vice, GQ, Elle and The New York Times Style Magazine.
Mash-ups combine elements of different songs to create something new and unexpected. DJ mash-ups have been central to hip-hop from the start, with MCs rapping over, say, beats from one song and the melodic line from another. As early as 1982, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” turned heads by sampling German electropop band Kraftwerk. Azealia Banks’s viral hit “212” is a classic example of an artist laying lyrics over a borrowed beat, in this case Lazy Jay’s club hit “Float My Boat.” Elsewhere Banks surprises with her eclectic choices, as when she covers Interpol’s “Slow Hands.” In classic hip-hop tradition, Banks’s version has in turn been remixed and mashed up by myriad DJs. But Banks is not the first hip-hop artist to make pop-crossover magic by blending genres and styles. Lauryn Hill lovingly channels Roberta Flack in The Fugees’ cover of Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (itself a cover). M.I.A. recontextualizes the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” in her Oscar- and Grammy-nominated “Paper Planes.” And Kanye West’s landmark album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy samples such diverse artists as King Crimson, Gil Scott-Heron, Mike Oldfield, Smokey Robinson, Aphex Twin and Black Sabbath to brilliant effect.
Swagger is a longstanding element of hip-hop, and lyrics often display a bravado that revels in dissing other artists. Public mudslinging can be a win-win: The music press whips up stories, fans take sides, and artists generate publicity and credibility while racking up record sales. The most famous beef of recent years has been between the East Coast’s Bad Boy Records and the West Coast’s Death Row Records.
Azealia Banks has clashed publicly with rappers Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and Nicki Minaj. In a GQ interview, Banks explains, “If you want to be where you want to be, then hey, maybe you’ve got to knock the next bitch down to get it.” Banks shrugs off comparisons to Minaj (both attended the same performing-arts high school), calling the latter’s career “essentially…a Lil’ Kim tribute”—possibly a reference to Minaj and Lil’ Kim’s predilections for plastic surgery. But whatever bad blood exists between Banks and Minaj (and Azalea and Kreayshawn) firmly places them in the world of hip-hop. And it’s hard not to suspect that these femcee battles are hyped to boost the public’s interest in seeing who comes out on top.
When hip-hop superstar Kanye West started following Azealia Banks on Twitter, it was news because: 1) Azealia Banks was an emerging phenomenon yet to release a full album; 2) Kanye is exceptionally selective—Azealia was one of only five people he followed; and 3) People pay attention to whatever Ye does. Kanye has called Banks “the future of music.” Considering his own boundary-pushing career and nerdy artistic sensibility, his appreciation makes perfect sense. Like Banks, Kanye has received praise and attention for his eclectic style and unexpectedly fresh collaborations, such as with Jon Brion (songwriting partner and producer of Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple) on his 2005 album Late Registration. Kanye’s follow-up, 808s & Heartbreak (2008), also defied expectations by channeling pure pop and showcasing his singing rather than rapping over electro beats. When Kanye returned to rapping with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), it was with seemingly reborn conviction, buoyed by epic, unconventional mash-ups and knockout performances by himself, as well as guest shots by Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Raekwon and others. Fantasy earned raves from critics, a spot on nearly every top 10 list and four 2012 Grammy awards.
The sword of Damocles (a mythological allusion implying impending disaster) literally hangs over Kanye West throughout the video for his 2010 single “Power.” The symbol is apt: The song is Kanye’s meditation on the rewards and costs of celebrity. It was released in the wake of his controversial, highly criticized appearance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for the best female video award to praise Swift’s fellow nominee Beyoncé. Kanye’s performance on “Power” is an ever-shifting lyrical sermon driven by two hooks that act like circuits routing the song’s crackling energy. The first is a sample: “21st-century schizoid man,” proclaims the distorted voice of Greg Lake, bassist and vocalist for English prog-rock band King Crimson. It is incantatory and oversaturated, and it discharges the tensions built throughout each verse. The song’s other hook is Ye’s refrain, “No one man should have all that power.” Somehow, Yeezy manages to sound at once like the wisest of legislators and the most megalomaniacal of potentates—in other words, classic Kanye West.
Kanye West’s “Monster” enlists the help of several talented musicians, including hip-hop legend Jay-Z, rap producer Rick Ross, indie folksinger Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and rap-pop crossover Nicki Minaj. Critics agree that Minaj kills it during her 31-bar verse: She seamlessly switches between personas and vocal styles, creating a narrative dialogue that both terrifies and seduces, giving the listener a portrait of monstrous female rage and malevolence. Kanye returns the favor, appearing on Minaj’s track “Blazin” from her 2010 debut Pink Friday. Also in the song are traces of Simple Minds’ hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club soundtrack, lending it a classic 1980s melody. Kanye and Minaj seem to have found their own signature styles for bridging the artistic and commercial sides of hip-hop. For Minaj, it is a superfast and theatrically multivocal rap flow over heavy, dance-friendly drumbeats. For Kanye, it is an eclectic texturing of soul samples, sped-up vocals, instrumental melodies and electronica. If these are the records that today’s aspiring rappers are listening to, what’s in store for the future of hip-hop?