I was overwhelmed the first time I heard “212,” Azealia Banks’s raw and juicy debut single. My roommate showed me the video in the fall of 2011: a cute girl in braids and a Mickey Mouse sweater rapped excitingly dirty lyrics over an uptempo drum beat punctuated by horns, then she switched to a deep, raspy singing voice for the song’s bridge. She was both goofy, dancing around with a huge smile on her face, and tough, repeating lines like, “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten” and “Bitch, the end of your life is near!” But catchy lyrics and catchy beats aside, the most intriguing part of the song and the girl was the assertion she yelled in the chorus: “Watchu gon’ do when I appear? When I premiere?” Talent and potential oozed out of her smacking lips, so we took those questions seriously. What were we going to do when she premiered? We had to wait and see.
Unfortunately, Banks had a hard time delivering on those threats. After the waves of critical praise, appearances on seemingly every “Best Songs of the Year” list, and front-row seats at fashion shows subsided, it was time for her to release new music. She signed with Interscope, a subsidiary of Universal Records, and began work on her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, which was originally set for a 2012 release but has since been delayed multiple times and still isn’t out.
In the meantime, she released a four-song EP called 1991 to good reviews — Rolling Stone concluded theirs with, “More, please” — but none of the tracks had That Thing we heard on “212.” 1991 sounded a lot more like an updated Missy Elliott than the cool 21-year-old girl who had the camera zoom in on her mouth when she said “cunt,” to make sure we understood her. That spunky girl, as it turned out, was too busy getting into fights on Twitter.
Banks tweet-beefed with everyone from fellow female rappers Lil Kim, Iggy Azalea, and Angel Haze to artists like Lily Allen, Disclosure, and T.I., and even fashion giants Dolce & Gabbana. Her hotheaded reputation began to overshadow her talent, and her 2012 mixtape Fantasea, in which she adopted a “seapunk” mermaid persona, was, again, only OK. Was it that she couldn’t figure out her persona? Was she wigging out under the expectations of a major-label deal, or was the label mishandling the work of an artist they didn’t quite understand, as they had done with artists like M.I.A, Childish Gambino, and Angel Haze? Or was it even worse than all that? Was Azealia Banks just a classic one-hit wonder who didn’t have anything else to say?
In early 2013, she released “#YUNGRAPUNXEL,” a screaming track that she announced would be Broke With Expensive Taste‘s lead single. Unfortunately, the best part of the song happens around 2:45, when she essentially samples herself, rapping a few bars to the tune of “212.”
It felt like that authentic, goofy-tough Harlem girl was lost in a mess of “seapunk” and “witch-hop,” an identity that was further complicated in the album’s next single, “#ATMJAM,” featuring Pharrell. Response to this sleeper was so poor that not only did Banks blame Pharrell, tweeting, “The reason ATM jam did poorly is because pharell [sic] changed his mind about wanting to be associated with me after he had his lite skin comeback,” but she later announced she was cutting the track from the album altogether. It was also rumored that the song was originally meant for Beyoncé — so no wonder it felt out of sync with Azealia’s style.
Banks also distanced herself from songs she was featured on, like Shystie’s “Control It.” She made such a stink on Twitter after the video came out, saying it was “soooooo bogus” and “so unoriginal, so not Azealia,” that Shystie wrote an open letter on Billboard’s The Juice to set the record straight about Azealia’s controlling attitude (ironic, given the title of their song).
Her discontent came to a head in January of this year, when she tweeted a series of rants about her label:
“I’m tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft. They don’t even know what they’re listening for or to… I am literally begging to be dropped by Universal.”
In March, she tweeted that she’d start leaking the album herself, and in July she gleefully announced she was “free at last” from her Universal deal. Shortly before this, Banks had also ended another long and stupid Twitter fight with T.I., saying, “This isn’t even interesting anymore.”
Which brings us to today’s wonderful and welcome news: the release of a new Azealia Banks song, “Heavy Metal and Reflective.” If I may be so bold, this track is far and away her best since “212,” and it’s not hard to see why. Her distinctive voice and slick lyrics are back on display, rather than ceding the spotlight to some forced-on persona or generic production.
“Heavy Metal and Reflective” feels so much more natural and raw — it’s as if, without the pressures (or shackles, as she saw them) of her label or the distractions of those petty Twitter fights, she’s finally able to return to her real self, Azealia Amanda Banks from the 212. Her lyrics are still smart and reference-heavy, dropping Michael Jackson track titles (“I be ‘P.Y.T.’ / You be ‘Billie Jean'”) and showing her age in the best way: “Buy me Tamagotchi / Sippin’ sake and Moëtses.” She’s even kept a bit of the witchy look and attitude she tested out in “#YUNGRAPUNXEL”: “I be in that 750 head up / With that hex witch.” But my favorite lines harken back to that playful sexual confidence we saw three years ago: “I be with that Betty / With that bubble and them breasts / I be looking very / Jiggle Jello in them dresses.”
Perhaps she needed to take this journey through hell, from the pressures of being at the top to a freedom from people’s expectations, controlled and released, to get back to herself. Her fluctuations and freakouts are all the more understandable when we remember that other key number — not 212 but 1991, her birth year. Azealia Banks is still only 23, an age where you’re just starting to settle into yourself and get comfortable with your unique talents and style. It feels like she’s finally found it again. So, to borrow the words of Rolling Stone: “More, please!”