I vividly remember two afternoons from my formative Tumblr years. Well, no, three. The day I logged on to find that one of the most popular users of the time had nonchalantly admitted to having a slave ‘maid’ was a pretty big day. But in the context of this piece, there are two days I remember most strongly. One in late January 2012 where Lana Del Rey first exploded onto the dashboard with Born to Die, an artist that forever changed the lives of ketamine users and club gays alike. The second afternoon of permanent residence in my memory was a few days later, where we all collectively became aware of the soon-monster smash “212” by Azealia Banks. It was brilliant – still one of the strongest debut singles this side of the millennium. We all adored “212”: for a bunch of young people only just starting to explore the realm past pop, and who were almost universally clinging to our precious virginity, we took to the confrontative pussy-eating anthem like bees to the most succulent sunflower. It was a day that could have formed the beginnings of a new world order. But like all fever dreams, our cold sweat woke us to a much different reality.
People tend to forget that Azealia Banks was once seen as a legitimate prodigy with the lyrical talent and fashion sense of Lil’ Kim, with production skills on par with Pharrell and Max Martin. There was a time where ‘beef’ was just something that she ate, not something that overshadowed and similarly crushed her career. Aside from Nicki Minaj, there had not been another female rapper so similarly hyped at the time – and even then, Azealia’s musical heyday garnered better reviews than Nicki’s. It was also an era where there was a distinct lack of big-name female rappers hanging around. By 2011, none of the old greats were contributing to the scene. Trina had disappeared to the Phantom Zone for all we knew, Foxy Brown had gone deaf years prior, and Missy Elliott had been privately suffering from Graves’ disease since 2008 – severely limiting her ability to contribute to the industry. Remy Ma had been in prison since 2008, because the girl had decided that a smart career move was to shoot a potential thief in the gut and let her bleed out. Classy, right? By the time Azealia arrived on the scene, there was plenty of room for someone as young and talented and she was.
And initially, she hit the stratosphere with ease. By 2012, she was performing at New York Fashion Week and even sitting in the audience with Anna Wintour – not in the same direct vicinity as Nicki’s famous encounter with Wintour (I’m really sittin’ with Anna!), but an undeniable mark of success nonetheless. For a queer girl who was raised in a poor and abusive household in Harlem, these surroundings were almost alien.
But now we get to the career attribute that she is most known for nowadays – almost exclusively, depending on who you talk to. Fightin’ Round the World with Azealia Banks.
It was pretty realistic at first – fun but brutal verbal assaults at Kreayshawn, who blew up around the same time as Azealia and immediately attracted criticisms of cultural appropriation. Not that this was pertinent to the beef, as Azealia just called Kreayshawn a ‘talentless slut’ for retweeting a link to “212”. I miss Kreayshawn, honestly. Pumped out a kid and became a delightful little Twitter personality. She once liked a tweet I made about her working at Chuck E. Cheese after her label stole all her money. She’s a good sport! But reminiscence over. The discussion of race and rap come to the forefront when Azealia mercilessly called out Iggy Azalea and T.I in 2012 for Iggy’s ‘runaway slavemaster’ line. This was pre-career ruin for Iggy, and so there was plenty of controversy involved – but it did start the train of criticism that forced Iggy’s career to slow down to a halt. As an artist whose ethnic and social identity was at the front of her public persona, Azealia won a lot of respect for how she initially made then-uncommon viewpoints about how race was treated in the industry, even by other black artists. I supported her fighting prowess. Her momentum showed no signs of slowing down. Life was still fun and fiery for Azealia at the time.
However, when the output of music post-”Heavy Metal and Reflective” seemed to dry up, and the feuds started to become more commonplace and volatile, the shift of opinion from Azealia Banks as a ‘firecracker’, to quote MTV, to her current perception as dependent on morally questionable arguments for coin was undeniable. She started firing at Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj for the collapse of their respective collaborations. She became to be increasingly associated with homophobia and transphobic attitudes, going back on forth on whether she was really sorry for throwing around the T-slur repeatedly. The clue she wasn’t sorry? She kept on doing it anyway! Her feuds with male rap artists varied in intensity and the ability to be defended for her comments dwindled, on account for transforming what were once legitimate points into… well, you’d see such discussions on Stormfront. By early 2014, she had been burned by nearly every potential collaboration, dropped by her label and had resorted to Twitter trolling to pay the bills. She managed to release her massively delayed album Broke with Expensive Taste in 2014, but the time had taken its toll: while positively reviewed, it did not sell well, and the seeming public rejection of her career’s work caused a spiral that is yet to correct itself.
After an infamously racist verbal attack on Zayn Malik in early 2016, social media sites decided to terminate Azealia’s accounts with extreme prejudice – on the grounds of, well, extreme prejudice. Instagram, Facebook and others soon followed. For an artist reliant on social media presence to support even the vestigial remains of her career, this was tantamount to a mob-style execution. She returned under the branding of CheapyXO, but this was not to last. Accusing artists of faking their sexual assault will do that to you. Banned from literally every social media platform under the sun, she was an entity without a host, Sauron without the ring to sustain his form. Interestingly, this did not stop her from putting in motion a series of incidents that caused Elon Musk to be charged with securities fraud. And people were not mad at her for that! However, in late 2018, she made her own social media platform cheapyxo.com, the only way she could still put herself out there without the Valkyries of other platforms rending her account asunder.
She now sells soap. One label is named ‘Bussy Boy’, if you wanted to get an idea. It’s not too bad, apparently. Still, it’s a shame. Time will tell if she manages to return to prominence, but for now, she must make do with the transformation of being on one of rap’s most gilded soapboxes to selling boxes of soap on what is tantamount to the digital sidewalk.