When New York rap icon Azealia Banks strutted onstage at The Warfield Feb. 27, she was a “fantasea” in hot pink velour, dripping sex appeal and bedazzled tassels. She gave a cutesy wave to San Francisco before the merengue backing and sweltering saxophone of “Gimme a Chance” flared, heralding a night of maximalist fever.
The name Azealia Banks should be ubiquitous with prodigious skill and visionary, experimental artistry, but more often it conjures contention. There’s plenty of that there too — Banks has run the controversy gamut, feuding with many a music industry heavyweight, and famously boiling her dead cat’s corpse. Banks’ antics are refracted in her bratty, downright nasty bars, her persona an entity inextricable from her art. Despite the Twitter cesspool, her star power simply burns too bright.
Outfitted with a brass horn trio for the first few songs of her set, which included high octane hitters such as “Desperado,” Banks kindled enough sass to send hoards of people into high orbit. Banks is a performer of the highest caliber, sliding between beats, genres and even languages with aqueous, flouncy dexterity.
There’s also an unabashed horniness that percolates through Banks’ bars. It’s a quality that closely adheres to the spirit of the times. After being shut inside for over a year, Banks’ audacious “What’s your dick like homie?” in “212” is deliciously crass and practically oozing desperation. Clearly, the sentiment was shared at the show: When Banks reached that lyric the crowd yelled in unison so loud the walls shook.
Last year, Banks reached her libidinal summit when she let loose “Fuck Him All Night,” a pearl clutcher with a sultry house beat in which she likens herself to Sharon Stone in “Casino”. Unlike Stone’s Ginger, Banks’ fashion icon status is dubious. The cover art for the single, for example, features a zoomed in shot of a denim thong and acrylic nails painted to read “KANYE WEST.”
While aesthetics may not be her forte, Banks is an artist in every sense of the word. Her ingenuity frequently transcends the confines of medium, putting to stage flamboyant, intricate feats of musical genius. Clean bookends aren’t exciting enough for Banks, transitions polished into glossy gemstones are much more her speed. She also possesses an uncanny ability to move her body to music, hips oscillating, gyrating and never missing a beat. The elements of live performance her contemporaries are content to neglect, Banks takes and excavates gold.
The irrefutable high point of the evening arrived when tech queued the unmistakable beat of Banks’ breakout single “212.” Squeals and cries resounded among the crowd as Banks howled “I’ma ruin you c—,” her favorite turn of phrase. Near the end of her set, Banks stopped her performance to attempt to share an unreleased single to her ravenous fans. “I wrote this c—y f—ing record,” she giggled. After some technical blunders, Banks asked, “Can I airdrop it? Can you feel the c—?”
It’s this unbridled dedication and care for her fans that endears Banks to many, despite her social media trolling and politically incorrect rhetoric. She gave no hesitation before she stripped off an elbow-length pink glove and crouched over the edge of the stage to airdrop the song, a gesture that proved she really is “Miss Camaraderie.”
“212” rattled the rap scene when it was released in 2012, and the world was violently introduced to the enigma that is Azealia Banks with virtually no soft launch. In form, she is fundamentally a tastemaker. That taste is sometimes acrid, but there’s no denying her massive influence. Who encodes the language of the times in the Web 2.0 era is no longer authors and filmmakers — but digital performance artists with the creative chops to legitimize their exploits. In this regard, Banks is not just an exemplifier: She’s the blueprint.