Today, Twitter beefmaster and onetime “one to watch” Azealia Banks released her second post-major label single, “Chasing Time.” On it, Banks returns to the house influences she navigated impressively in her 2012 mixtape, Fantasea, mixing them with fresh new sounds recalling the work of up-and-coming UK producer SOPHIE. But more than that, she channels her frustrations with Universal Music Group, which signed her in early 2012 to Interscope on the strength of single “212” but delayed her debut LP into nonexistence, into its catchy chorus: “Am I chasing time? ‘Cause I wasted all mine on you/ Shut my watch, I had the future in my pocket/ But I lost it when I gave it to you.” Keep in mind, this is the label she begged to be dropped from, repeatedly, via Twitter. When she finally was dumped this past July, after two years and one EP (2012’s 1991), Banks declared, “Free at last.”
If that’s not enough to convince you that Banks found musical inspiration in her label woes, you can’t miss it at the end of “Chasing Time,” perhaps her strongest song since “212”: “My attitude is bitchy but you already knew that/ And since we can’t get along, I think we should both move along.” Like M.I.A. and Interscope before her (or rather, concurrently), Banks has been wildly public with her criticisms of the major label system. “I’m really in hell here,” The Guardian reports Banks as tweeting. “I’ve been gratefully riding off of mixtape fumes for the past two years … [But] my fans really need some new music … Universal needs to just hand me over to another label who knows what to do with me … 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.”
When Banks’s first post-Universal song, “Heavy Metal and Reflective,” debuted back in July, my Flavorwire colleague Isabella Biedenharn noted that the new Azealia was merely her getting back to the goofy, tough rapper we loved in the first place: “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.” It’s a shame she had to change herself or jump through hoops, but maybe Banks learned something from the experience that she’ll take with her now that she’s looking to start her own label. The poppiness of “Chasing Time” suggests she gleaned one lesson.
Still, Banks’s struggle is not all that surprising when you consider the cannibalistic nature of major label female rappers. The fact that we have two of them, Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, in the Top 5 of the Hot 100 (not to mention multiple entries further down the chart) at this very moment is progress. But both, along with their fellow Universal Music signee Angel Haze, have made concessions to commercialize (read: “soften”) their sounds for mainstream audiences.
The majors’ most common route is to break these female hip-hop stars at Top 40 radio, instead of via the format they still antiquatedly call Urban radio. It’s a fickle world where Chris Brown remains as popular as he was years ago, and hip-hop-influenced vocalists like Tinashe are an easier sell than actual rapping from a woman. But it’s also a world where Iggy — and, yes, even the endlessly talented Nicki — would be left toiling had they not found the more accepting masses via pop. Even in her earliest works, Banks embraced a fun pop sensibility, but her verses were lewd and raw — and definitely not sung. Here’s hoping she never has to go full “Starships,” as “Chasing Time” proves Azealia still has more to say in her own voice.