It’s a simple concept. Black and white video. The streets of New York City. A Mickey Mouse sweater. Hair in four braids. A sample of Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat”. All interesting, of course, but no individual element of “212” stands out as immediately striking – that is, no element except Azealia Banks herself.
With tongue-twisting lyricism, a cutesy vulgarity and a fire in her belly, Azealia Banks’ debut single is one for the books. Go to a dance floor anywhere, and you’ll probably hear it. Its explosive chorus was unlike anything that came before it, and has been poorly imitated several times over.
Pitchfork called it the sixth best song of the 2010s. Billboard said it defined a decade. Just this week, Rolling Stone placed it on its list of the 500 greatest songs ever made. Even voters in triple j’s Hottest 100 of the Decade last year deemed it worthy, coming in at #68 on a countdown decided by almost 2 million votes – the highest of any female rapper. Not bad for a 19-year-old New Yorker.
“212” had all the makings to kickstart an iconic career. Emerging at a time when the mainstream idea of “female rappers” started and ended with Nicki Minaj, Banks offered us an alternative – someone with grit, youth and an ear to the ground. Banks was the epitome of cool, and the epitome of the internet. A child of Myspace and AOL, her career was born from virality before we really knew what that meant, and not through the likes of record label nurturing and TV talent shows. She wasn’t alone in this phenomena either – Lana Del Rey, A$AP Rocky, Grimes, Frank Ocean, Charli XCX and Tyler, The Creator all had their major breakthrough in 2011.
But it’s hard to think of any artist that has been marred in as much controversy as Banks. Her social media presence has been incendiary to say the least, and the list of people she has feuded with is so extensive that it has its own section on Wikipedia and has become a meme in its own right.
Too many times, Azealia Banks has garnered attention for all the wrong reasons. And given the views she’s expressed, the gavel of cancel culture came swinging down hard and fast. Her access to various social media pages has been prohibited repeatedly, she’s no longer the festival favourite she once was and her music has never reached close to the heights of her breakout “212”.
There’s no doubt Azealia Banks is a fantastic artist. Her rapping skill speaks for itself, but she’s also showcased a decent, soulful singing voice and has consistently had an eye for cutting-edge, forward-thinking production. By the assessment of many, Azealia Banks stood in her own way. But is that truly the case?
Azealia Banks’ career was impacted by her behaviour, but it wasn’t destroyed. While it’s been seven years since she dropped her album – the underrated Broke With Expensive Taste – she still remains relevant. This month alone she played a string of sold out shows in New York City, and made her runway debut at New York Fashion Week. Her 2012 track, “Luxury”, has been inescapable on TikTok this year.
Banks’ staying power is in part due to the fact that, much like the proverbial gavel, people’s moral compasses aren’t iron-clad either. They’re constantly changing as we change, as we learn more about the world around us. Our opinion on any one thing can fluctuate multiple times per day. More importantly, no one decides what’s morally right or wrong besides ourselves. No Twitter user, no public figure, not even a family member can ultimately dictate what we believe to be right or wrong, good or bad. We’re going to do what we want to do, and we’re going to consume what we want to consume. You can think Azealia Banks is the worst person in the world, but if “212” is a song that really resonated with you, you might just give it another listen.
It must also be noted that not all public figures who have behaved terribly face the same pushback Banks has. Kanye West – a man who has been repeatedly lambasted online for his words in recent years – just caused an uproar with the release of his tenth album, DONDA. This is someone who was outspoken in his support for Donald Trump, referred to slavery as a “choice” and played one half in the most well-known music beef of the century, where many people said he was misogynist.
Here’s how DONDA charted: Number 1 in the US Billboard 200, Number 1 in the Australian ARIA charts, Number 1 in the Billboard Canadian Album charts... you get the idea.
DONDA itself contained commentary on cancel culture. At the album’s third listening party, West stood in an arena flanked by DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. (DaBaby’s been under fire of late for his ignorant and homophobic comments regarding HIV and AIDS, while Manson’s currently facing four sexual assault lawsuits.) It’s clear that West saw these people as his allies, and gave them yet another platform.
It’s hard to imagine Banks being given similar opportunities, and it’s hard to imagine that her identity as a Black woman isn’t playing a role here.
When Banks drops the f-slur (something she does often and unapologetically) she’s criticised – as she should be. When Eminem does it (as recently as 2018 in reference to Tyler, The Creator) his backlash feels far quieter; Eminem’s status as a ‘legend’ gets to carry on untarnished. This even proves to be the case with people Banks herself has been embroiled in controversy with. In 2016, Banks accused actor Russell Crowe of calling her a racial slur and spitting on her – a story later reportedly corroborated by someone who was there. In the years since, this event has almost completely disappeared from the public’s understanding of either her or Crowe.
There’s also the hard-to-swallow reality that we just can’t look away from controversy. We can’t help but engage. Social media’s need for us to constantly be on, and to constantly be posting, encourages all of us to have a take. But regardless of what the take is – positive or negative – we’re engaging. The more we engage, the more others feel the need to engage – and on the carousel spins. Engagement means clicks, it means streams and it ultimately means relevance.
When Morgan Wallen was filmed using the N-word in February, his most popular song cracked the Top 200 chart on Spotify. He was dropped by his label, his management and removed from country radio, but these consequences existed in tandem with the immediate surge in streams. His actions reaped professional ramifications, but they boosted his place on Spotify’s biggest chart, theoretically exposing his art – and not his actions – to even more people.
Now, Azealia Banks isn’t in the same position as Wallen – I’ve already pointed out how her actions are as associated with her name as her art. But those actions get us talking, and her art inherently permeates those conversations. Sure, you can try and separate the art from the artist, but there is no artist without art.
In 2011, Azealia Banks told us she can be the answer. But, 10 years on from “212”, she’s left us with far more questions. Not only about what she could have been if she behaved differently, but also about ourselves, our innate hypocrisies and our insatiable hunger to engage – and what that means for artists we love, and those we don’t. In 2021, Azealia Banks’ art gives us so much more to think about than “I guess that c*nt getting eaten” could have ever intended.