When Azealia Banks arrived in 2011, the now-24-year-old Harlem rapper was wearing a Mickey Mouse sweater and braided pigtails in the video for her debut viral hit “212.” Many of us fell instantly in love. Her propulsive scat, combination of rap and electro, unmistakable voice, and profane lyrics were a much-needed punch in the gut. Before long, Banks became the fearless rebel with a mischievous grin and razor-sharp tongue who had come to save everyone from the gold-leaf grandiosity of Watch the Throne and the disconsolate sadness of Take Care. Now, just five years into her career, that same mischievousness and verbal dexterity are being deployed to self-destructive ends. The rebel is rebelling too hard.
What she’s going through as a young artist whose early success gave rise to a public-facing persona that soon overshadowed her music is hardly unique. In a recent New Yorker profile of the 27-year-old musician Grimes, Kelefa Sanneh hints at the disquieting possibility that the Canadian artist’s “online presence might be even more popular, and more influential, than her music.” In Grimes’s case, that could be advantageous: By connecting with fans through prolific social media output — in particular a delightful Tumblr — her cultural relevance is no longer singularly dependent on song output, though it does raise the question of how her standing as a credible musician will be affected by her rising social profile. With Banks, there is no question: Her behavior on social media, and generally in public, is destroying her career. Her once-lauded music has been eclipsed by a series of cringeworthy outbursts, beefs, and public meltdowns online that have left us wondering why we’re still paying any attention to her at all.
Almost immediately after “212” became a hit, Banks began initiating feuds and stirring controversy. In January of 2012 she called the Oakland rapper Kreayshawn a “dumb bitch” for tweeting and deleting a link to her “212” video. In March of 2013, she called Rita Ora “thirsty” for taking photos at a music festival. (“She’s mad she’s Rihanna’s understudy,” she laughed.) Last year, she called T.I. a “shoe-shining coon” for promoting the career of noted freestyle-rap legend Iggy Azalea, whom Banks affectionately refers to as “Igloo Australia.” The antics were often detestable, but at the same time her candor was refreshing, if not amusing. Some of our greatest artists, from Beethoven to Kanye, have been prone to fits driven by passion. Then, in December of last year, Banks tweeted, “Them bitches frontin’ like they wasn’t trying to get some of that pudding pop!!!” referring to the victims of Bill Cosby’s rape allegations. No longer could we laugh off her behavior.
The latest meltdown happened on a late-September flight from New York to Los Angeles. According to reports, Banks spat in a passenger’s face after claiming he had tried to hit her; when a co-pilot appeared to help deescalate the situation, Banks was caught on camera calling him a “fucking faggot.” That would be problematic enough if Banks didn’t have a history of publicly using that slur, but she does — in 2013, she called Perez Hilton a “messy faggot” on Twitter after he took sides in an online beef involving Banks and Detroit rapper Angel Haze. The public cried foul, and Banks defended her use of the word by tweeting, “I am bisexual. my brother is trans. My employees are all gay men. .Nothing else to say [sic].” Nevertheless, she told The Guardian at the time that she would never use the word again because it’s not “worth it” for her career. So much for that.
After the airplane incident, Banks posted a quote on Instagram that read, “Sometimes I just want someone to hug me and say ‘I know it’s hard. You’re going to be okay. Here’s a coffee. And 5 million dollars,’” with the caption, “I have never felt the pain of not being white the way I’ve felt it since I’ve been a public figure/part of this entertainment industry.” A commenter replied to that Instagram post with, “Imagine the pain young gay fans feel when they hear the vile things you say,” which curiously set Banks off. She responded with a series of replies that included, “oh well imagine how I wanna spray a gay man in the face with pepper spray every time he calls me a bitch a slut or a hoe. Kiss my ass. Goodnight.” and “Keep f*cking with me if you f*cking want to.” and “One day your hemorrhoids are going to burst and you’ll bleed to death b*tch.” and the most horrifying of all, “Yea keep trolling for d*ck on grindr. You’ll be murdered and stuffed under a truck somewhere soon.”
This is the awful behavior of someone who is profoundly immature. But it also seems to be the increasingly desperate behavior of an artist who recognizes that her career is listing, badly, and who has neither the support structure in place to rein her in nor the discipline to course-correct by focusing on her work. Banks has always made it clear, with her actions if not words, that she embraces the role of iconoclast. What she’s failing to realize is that even iconoclasts need people in their corner.
And it’s not just the fans that Banks has alienated. Jettisoned projects with Disclosure and Lady Gaga are examples of why artists find it increasingly difficult to collaborate with her. She was dropped by XL and walked away from Universal, and as The Guardian points out, isn’t likely to find a home at another major anytime soon. She’s not wrong when she points out the inherent challenges of being a young black woman in a predominantly white, male industry, but the reputation she once had, of being both talented and provocative, was one that she could have had success trading on. Her new reputation, less so. She could benefit tremendously from a trusted, close-knit group of seasoned professionals who could help shape her talent into a sustainable career, but who’s going to make that investment at this point?
The temptation to give up on her is justified, but what a waste that would be. Her debut, Broke With Expensive Taste, was a triumphant album that showcased her exceptional rap skills and genre-bending playfulness. It received favorable reviews, which have since been eclipsed by Banks’s subsequent troll-y antics. But she has never concealed her taste for the outrageous or the profane; she’s never been politically correct; she’s never been outwardly willing to conform. Consider: The most famous line from her first single was “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.” She has always been a provocateur, and for awhile that was what we loved about her. But she also had the music. The behavior was tolerable — or at least more so than it is now — because of that spellbinding output and scintillating potential. As the music fades from memory, we’re suddenly being forced to ask just who this is that we’ve been championing.
Sensing she had gone too far after the airplane incident, Banks deleted her most incendiary comments (but didn’t admit to doing anything wrong or — heaven forbid! — apologize), and then tried to turn the situation into a teachable moment for the LGBT community. “All I had to do was say one word and I moved a whole community. What weaklings!!!” she tweeted. She then went on to evoke a “sticks and stones” schoolyard philosophy by claiming the word nigger does not offend her. “I’m not a weak bitch, being called a dyke or a nigger does absolutely nothing to move me.” “I’d be like ‘That’s all you got???’”
She capped it off with a string of emoji, as though a yellow smiley could make watching her flail any less bearable. But she’s right that something can be learned from all of this. If Banks wants to continue to have a successful career in music, she’ll have to realize that being carelessly provocative brings with it the risk of a burnt-out reputation and a vertiginous crash to Earth. She’s falling fast, and no longer is anything about her spectacle entertaining.