Three long years after becoming an instant star with ‘212’, Azealia Banks finally sacked off her label late last year to release her psychedelic wonderland of a debut album. As a result, as the 23-year-old old told Gavin Haynes in a fascinating NME interview in December 2014, she no longer has time for controversy…
First, in March 2013, she wished “nothing but excrement and death” on The Stone Roses. Not long after she implied A$AP Rocky was gay. Five months passed, and she called Lady Gaga a plagiarist. Then in November this year, she suggested Eminem “go back to his trailer park and eat his microwave hotpocket dinner and suck on his sister’s tiddies”. Two weeks on, she said she wanted to “punch the ugly one” in Disclosure. Times were when Azealia Banks’ mouth pretty much came with its own postcode.
“It’s not even a head thing,” she says, describing the red mist that overtakes her in these moments of confrontation. “It’s a physical thing. I start to get hot.”
There were also the epic song wars and Twitter battles with Angel Haze in early 2013. Cussing-out Baauer. Slamming Pharrell. Getting into flame wars with Perez Hilton and Lily Allen. A fight with Iggy Azalea, and then a fight with the American rapper TI about his comments about her fight with Iggy Azalea. Yet the girl who flops into a pink sofa in a side-suite at central London’s Marylebone Hotel in yin-yang pyjama bottoms and a big black Dave Chappelle T-shirt is nothing like the designer-clad despot she’s been built up as. “Now, when I feel that, I realise, and I go and have a glass of water or something to calm down.” She says she doesn’t have time to be a bitch anymore. She’s got too much stuff to do right now.
It’s 4pm, and Azealia’s just got up, still working on New York time. She has brought with her a glass of orange juice, which she doesn’t sip once for the whole hour we’re together. She charms her manager, a huge white-haired American man, and then her tour manager, a girl of about 25 with big owlish glasses. She smiles broadly as she explains her past problems in historical terms.
“If you give a 19 year-old a million pounds and a bottle of vodka and a Chanel handbag and one of these” – she points at an iPhone on the glass coffee table – “then what do you think’s going to happen? I always tell my mom, just imagine if you were coke binging in the ‘80s and you had Twitter. Imagine if they had Twitter during the crack epidemic.”
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Way back in 2011, Azealia was a 19-year-old with a development deal with XL. She borrowed a Lazy Jay beat, wrote some snappy filth over it, and that became ‘212’. XL didn’t like it, so she stuck it on the internet instead, and within weeks, the girl with the Beretta flow mouthing off about how “I guess that cunt’s getting eaten” seemed to anyone with eyes in their head like a future superstar. Here was a smart, aggressive, psychedelic rapper. Interscope threw two million dollars at her feet in tribute. The future was hers to blow. And blow it she did.
First Interscope told her the record she’d made wasn’t commercial enough and they weren’t going to release it unless she changed it. So she wrote ‘ATM Jam’ with Pharrell as a kind of commercial battering ram, but it flopped into the UK singles charts at Number 169. And care of her acidic attitude, she burnt through her industry friends and supporters at speed, until the game itself turned against her. “Of course it was fucking painful,” she says, looking away. “There was definitely a period there when it was just fashionable to hate on Azealia Banks.”
The Axl Rose of rap had become pure spectacle, total sideshow. Until she wasn’t. Until, one idle Thursday, November 6, ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ suddenly appeared as a download on iTunes. Interscope had finally dropped her in July, leaving her free to go to court to seize custody of her record. Rather than announce it and risk being “the girl who cried wolf,” as Azealia’s co-manager, Angelica Cob, told Billboard, they opted for a surprise release. After years as a punchline, Azealia Banks is finally a musician again. And a potentially great one: “Here at last, ‘Broke…’ is a cascading flood of madcap imagination,” wrote NME’s Matthew Horton.
Rewind a year, though, and there were times even Azealia seemed to have given up on herself. She was spending a lot of time at home, taking tap-dancing lessons, baking, practicing her scales on the piano. She was learning how to knit, thinking about taking a role in a Keanu Reeves film, and wondering whether she might get a role on Broadway instead. It says something that the rap dream was only one of the possibilities she saw in herself. The kid from the famous LaGuardia stage school in New York was at heart still an art dork, trying out poses, dicking around with whatever took her fancy. She was also writing an extended fable/activity-book, which she says is still going to accompany the deluxe edition of her album [see sidebar].
“You know, when you’re just at home baking cookies, you almost forget you’re an artist and you like to make art. You tell yourself, you know what, I’ll just keep making songs. I wasn’t that bothered that no one else could hear them. I could. Then I guess I was like praying for a manager then one just popped up. When I met with Jeff [Kwatinetz – her new manager, whom she found while trying to persuade someone to put out her record], it was like when you get with a new boyfriend and he makes you feel sexy all over again. Like, ‘Oh my god this is fucking insane’.”
The story of how ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ came to be the psychedelic wonderland it is has more to do with Azealia’s actual previous boyfriend. Bizarre as it seems, when Azealia broke through with all of ‘212’s hyper-sexed bustle, its author was in a relationship with a middle-aged white guy, and was more likely to spend her evenings making granola bars than doing blow in The Bowery toilets.
When they met, he was 43. She was 17. “I was a little girl. Everything he said was like what I had to do. And he was very controlling. He didn’t want me to do drugs because he’d had a substance problem and been to rehab. When ‘212’ came out, I’d barely had a beer.”
Thy broke up about the time she got famous. “He just got into jealousy and all that. So once we broke up, I went into this deep, deep depression. I was doing a lot of drugs. And I went a lot of places with myself. I saw a lot of things in other realms, other places. My circuitry just started to switch. In a good way. Those things, they knock the crust off your third eye. Just like: woooooo – you can see ghosts and shit.”
She started reading ‘60s acid guru Dr Timothy Leary’s psychedelic manifestos, and grazing the internet for the psychedelic experiments of Alexander Shulgin – the legendary psychonaut who first publicised MDMA as a recreational drug.
Psychedelics opened her up. She went deep, had mad times, dived headfirst into the adolescence she’d missed in her claustrophobic relationship. “My favourite album to listen to on mushrooms is Ariel Pink’s ‘Before Today’,” she says. “And [Pink’s] ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’ – that’s like my song. I’ll be butt naked in front of the mirror with my hair weave in and my hairbrush, I’ll be just dancing, pretending.”
“That’s kinda how we got to [new album track and Pink cover] ’Nude Beach A-Go-Go’. I was so obsessed with ‘Bright Lit Blue Skies’. And once he was making his album, I was like: “Give me this song.” And he was like: ‘No’. I asked him for weeks. Weeks and weeks. I was like: ‘Stink Pink, give me the song’. And eventually, he did.”
She’s close friends with Stink Pink (so named for his body odour). He comes to her dinner parties. As does Lana Del Rey, another good pal. They talk about “Girl stuff. Like, love and life and stuff. It’s cool because I’m really loud and like, aaagh! And she’s really reserved and dainty. I love Lana.”
She says her own album ‘sounds like it’s 3D’ if you listen to it on drugs. “Especially the monkeys on ‘Idle Delilah’”. By now, Azealia’s reclining. She’s got her legs hooked up above the back of her chair, her nude feet pointed soles-first towards the window.
‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ is definitely not your average 2014 rap production. It’s a bejewelled panther of a thing, more Chanel than Juicy Couture. Of course, the high street smash’n’grab of ‘212’ still sits dead-centre. You couldn’t toss that aside. But between that, sleek ear-popping minimalism is the order of the day. Sometimes from bizarre places: one-time UK Garage hero MJ Cole – last seen damaging the charts in the early noughties – turns up to produce ‘Desperado’, which is basically speed garage. There’s the CeCe Peniston-alike early-‘90s commercial house feel of ‘Chasing Time’. Juke/bass producer Machinedrum also contributes, and there are a number of Brits featured – she has strongly Anglophile taste – including Pearson Sound and the techno-inclined Boddika.
Azealia’s got a magpie ear for sound, and a slick, on-it taste. As someone who came up the most DIY way possible – surfing through MySpace, messaging the likes of Diplo and rapping over random beats she’d found on the internet – her MO hasn’t changed that much.
“A lot of the songs I just jacked other people’s shit,” she explains. “Pearson Sound has a song called ‘Wad’ on iTunes. And I downloaded it. And I wrote ‘Idle Delilah’ over it. And then I wrote him an email saying: ‘Hey – I made your song really awesome. Can I have this now?’ I always do that. I guess all those guys were just really flattered that I had taken their weird kooky white boy things and put rap and soul and singing jazz over it.”
That DIY approach has lead her to some of the freshest talent out there. Though at the same time, this has got her into trouble. Munchi denied her the use of the track that was to have been her second single – ‘Esta Noche’. And she fell out very publicly with Baauer when she tried to release her version of ‘Harlem Shake’, and he also refused her permission.
“Fuck Baauer,” she grins. “Who gives a fuck about fucking Baauer? Seriously. Diplo had you, bro. That nigga gassed you up. He had you at the club, then he dropped you and it’s like woop, nobody wants to fuck Baauer now. You know what I mean? That’s what pissed me off. You’re some little ass DJ and you’re acting like you’re Calvin Harris or something.”
She reserves a similar amount of bile for Pharrell, who she once worshipped but now says “broke her heart” when he didn’t push ‘ATM Jam’ – a track she’s pointedly left off her new record. But these outbursts now seem done more for comedic effect than a tragic lack of self-awareness. You believe her when she says she’s tamed that famous temper. She was 19. Now, she’s 23. And in-between, she may indeed have grown up.
“Am I hanging up my fighting gloves? Yeah. I’m a lady. I don’t wanna be dealing with that. Now, when you feel the adrenaline going, you stop yourself. I’m done with that. I’ve done it already. You’ve seen me curse people out. Let’s do something else now.”
She’s already got her second album lined up. It’s called ‘Business & Pleasure’, it’s half-finished and scheduled by its maker for release in 2016. Now, she’s seeing whole album cycles play out. That’s how much she’s moved on. And the big bag of money she got from Interscope to make the record they canned? She got to keep most of it. She didn’t spend it impulsively as you might expect. In fact, she’s saved it.
“Nuh-uh. I put it away in $250,000 amounts. I’m still getting another $250k payment in my account next year. Because I’ve always been very careful with money. Like, when my mom used to give me $20, at the end of the week, I’d still have $15. I always knew I was never gonna end up a broke bitch.”