To spit: to rap
Flow: speed of rapping
Vamp: a financially or sexually powerful woman, who is drawn to dark subjects such as witchcraft
Nigga: a male whom AB interacts with sexually
Bambi: a highly desirable and ladylike femme girl
The most recent doyenne of rap, Azealia Banks, has garnered equal amounts of praise and criticism from the mainstream press and blog-elite for her unreserved lyricism and sexual bravado. Going by multiple pseudonyms (AB, Young Rapunxel, and BamBi), she is known for her brazen beats and talent as a rapper, singer, and lyricist. On her first international hit, “212,” Banks spits about cunnilingus with bemused nonchalance—“I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.” Clad in a Mickey Mouse sweater and cut-off shorts, she alternately flirts with and antagonizes a silent, still white male. Using different vocal modes, including rapping and singing, she spins the tale of her path to fame and glory in which she steals his girlfriend and derogatorily depicts him as gay, before laughing the whole affair off with a, “I’m fucking with you, cutie-q.”
In most of her recent releases, she sells sex, but unlike many of her predecessors (at least those with much success,) she does so as an openly bisexual black woman. Her treatment of black female sexuality and bisexuality is categorically different than that of her adversaries in the business, most notably Nicki Minaj, who employs bisexual imagery in her lyrics and music videos for the pleasure of her fans instead of her own sexual preferences. Banks, on the other hand, explores bisexuality in her lyrics to express herself as a bisexual woman of color, traversing the slippery slope of rendering her politics personal without ever seeming disingenuous. She does, of course, profit from “vamping” her blackness, bisexuality, and sexually racy thematics throughout her music.
Do not be fooled: Banks does not trifle with coy flirtations, nor does she fully yield to the impulse to sexualize her identification as a black woman or bisexual. She croons for the love of someone to whom she can be his “lady”; yet, when she raps and sings about sex, she artfully describes scenes of group sex, masturbation, and infidelity. She is equally willing to play the role of alluring coquette, irate vixen, and provocative powerhouse. She is both the self-described pelagic leitmotif of a black-skinned mermaid on her mixtape Fantasea and the brazen figure of the Jezebel: seductive, mercurial, and dangerous. Banks’s music engages the intersections of gender, sexuality, and race with ease, flair, and a smirk. A close reading of Azealia Banks reveals a project that commodifies black female sexuality vis-à-vis white male consumption of said sexuality, yet which cleverly subverts many of the power dynamics that dominate white-and male-driven depictions of interracial sexualities.
Banks deliberately intertwines her race with her sexuality in this way, often referring to stereotypes that are white-or male-driven. On “L8R” she describes a hook-up with an “older nigga,” while explicating the integration of white supremacy in the realm of beauty and aesthetics: “Light skin world, light skin girls / Switching his vanilla cause he likes that swirl, yeah / He like black girls and he love a musician.” Banks uses a plethora of metaphors to describe this interracial sexuality and black women’s bodies. Though the metaphors are too many to list, some include: “the pastry chocolate croissant,” “café au lait” (“1991”); “chocolate candy,” “liquorice,” “cinnamon” (“Esta Noche”); and “that chocolate body,” “that tootsie roll,” “that flirty Hershey,” “roly poly” (“Chips”). With metaphors like these, Banks intentionally markets herself to white “niggas” and fetishizes her blackness.
Banks uses the word “nigga” to describe all men with a “liquorice interest” or an attraction to black women, undermining the semantic association of “nigga” with its allegedly self-evident link to race, specifically blackness, by subjecting white men to this prejudicial term historically employed against African-Americans: “these niggas be gorillas for the pin-k flesh / These niggas be vanilla, the chips be legitimate.” Not only does Banks racialize white men, she also plays upon “pink flesh,” referring to her labia, to absolve herself of her own epidermal blackness and to twist and distort the generally unquestioned optics of racism.
The song “Liquorice” can be considered Banks’ billet-doux to white men who “like that swirl.” Banks provocatively asks her listener whether he likes his lady in her “color,” as if she were a saleswoman speaking to a perusing shopper. She is willing to mold and reinvent herself for him (“Can I be what you like?”), and assures him that she can satisfy his innumerate desires (“I could set you right.”) Then, moments later, retorts, “So since you vanilla men spend / can my hot fudge bitches get with your vanilla friends?” She is aware of her own fetishization of her blackness—“that black girl pin-up with that black girl dip”—that is often represented as marginal, peripheral, and exotic. The rendition of herself as a “pin-up”—a material object of desire, to be seen and revisited recursively, yet to remain only an image of fantasy—encapsulates many of the problems inherent in interracial fantasies/fantaseas. Her songs similarly act as “pin-ups” or “dips” of female blackness, since they can be consumed in private solitude, the space within which sexual fantasies of their “liquorice interest” thrive.
In the video for “Liquorice,” Banks presents herself as four different personas each with their own unique attire. First, she appears as the all-American girl, whose sexualization serves to subvert her own sex appeal. For instance, she reaches to bite a hot dog that she then crushes in her fist. Second, she dresses as the American cowboy. Her third and fourth personas both represent Banks as a femme Bambi. In her most femme persona, Banks reaches for her groin, a gesture common to some voguing dance subcultures as an indication of being fiercely cunt, literalizing its metaphor since Banks actually “shows off” her snatch unlike the queer men who flaunt it symbolically. Banks holds power in this song precisely because she is the one who allegorizes her own race and the interracial relationships that she navigates. Similarly, she does not forfeit control in her video because she not only controls its images but continually subverts them.
As her motto in “Esta Noche” indicates, “Banks ‘bout: money, power, respect.” She states, moreover, “I’m a rude bitch but I like gentlemen / who spend dividends, benjis, residuals too.” On “L8R” she hollers, “You gotta spend a lot for this behavior / If it ain’t about a dollar I’ma holler at you later.” And on “1991,” she explicitly refers to herself as a commodity, spitting, “I sell, you buy, that’s my version.” Not only does she commodify sex, she also often displays a willingness to be the object of men’s fantasy/fantasea.
Laden in her lyrics is hetersexism specifically directed at males. Her Twitter feuds do little to repair this heterosexism that is prevalent within her discography. After a feud with fellow female rapper Angel Haze went public, blogger Perez Hilton began to side with Haze, calling AB “thirsty,” “pathetic,” and “hurtful,” claiming “You drag while others uplift.” Banks wrote the following tweet in response: “lol what a messy faggot you are.” Then, in an attempt to decouple the presumed homophobia and heterosexism that the word ‘faggot’ immediately implies, AB tried to alleviate the gravity of her former Tweet with her own definition of what constitutes ‘a faggot.’ She tweeted: “A faggot is not a homosexual male. A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There’s a BIG difference.” And then for more clarification: “When I said acts like I female I should’ve said acts like a cunt.”
What is evident, here, is that Banks believes she can transfer the meaning of the word ‘faggot’ to signify a feminine or femme male instead of a gay or homosexual male. This obviously ignores the history of the term’s usage against LGBTQ+ people in gender-bashing, often in conjunction with physical acts of violence. To be fair to Banks, Hilton does exaggerate this application of ‘faggot’ against him to an extent, insofar as him previously calling Will.I.Am a ‘faggot’ in a club in 2009 renders him a homophobia-spreading hypocrite, but this does not lessen the severity of Banks’s statement. Her amendment is especially troubling in the way she shifts the cause of denigration from queer sexuality to feminine expressions of gender by male-bodied individuals. Which, if we follow her reformation of the pejorative, makes her application of ‘faggot’ transphobic or phobic of gender fluidity more generally, not homophobic.
As was also clear in “212,” Banks’s homophobia stems from her disregard for expressions of femininity by male-bodied individuals, perhaps most caustically in “1991,” where she says to T.I., or “tip top or all his niggas,” “sucka a di-i-ck nigga / cause you gonna be a bitch nigga.” Again, she scapegoats femininity and instantiates a larger trend of trans-misogyny, where people are derogated and often bodily violated because of femininity.
Yet, “212” is also provocatively explicit in her depictions of women giving other women sexual pleasure. In the first stanza, she speaks of kicking it “with the bitch who comes from Parisian” and “now she wanna lick my plum in the evenin’ / And fit that tongue tongue d-deep in / I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.” The final refrain is repeated five times; and, in the video, the lyric is superimposed over Banks’s lips in large white text. Banks’s bisexuality allows her to market herself as both male sex-object and male sexual fantasy of lesbian sex. Thus, she is able to unabashedly describe wanting to sleep with or “vamp” the boy’s girlfriend, while still teasing and flirting with him.
Azealia openly self-identifies as a “vamp,” “bitch,” and a “witch,” going so far as to describe her music as “witch pop” in “Atlantis.” For her, being a vamp woman is empowering, noting sex and money as two channels through which women can attain power. This positioning as powerful and uncompromising in her own right resembles her claims in “212” and “Esta Noche” to be “a rude bitch,” a claim that she often reiterates, saying “I’m a hoodlum nigga” to suggest that she’s in control and ready for a fight. She raps, “You could get shot, homie, if you do want to / put your guns up, tell your crew don’t front,” and on “No Problems,” aims a diss at fellow rapper Angel Haze: “bad queen is my pedigree, bad bitch is my legacy.” Her self-confidence shines as she ends “Salute,” the last song on Fantasea, with the command, “Salute a bad bitch you should.” This formulation of “vamp bitch” connotes the “bad bitch” personas of modern female rappers, as well as previous articulations of women’s positions like those in Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist text, The Feminine Mystique, where a woman’s power is partially derived from being menacing towards her male counterparts, especially white men.
She is also skeptical about the border she is constantly crossing between rap and song. This rap-song dyad becomes an integral component of Banks’s music because it allows her to transcend the ostensible inferiorities of her identites. Banks is not comfortable with this duality, admitting in an interview with Hypertrak that she finds rap “unladylike” and that “One day I don’t wanna rap anymore…I think it’s kinda tacky. I think it’s very unladylike. I like it but I think I’m gunna get tired of it.” However, it is only through this “unladylike” genre that Banks is able to appropriate the agency to racialize whiteness and reinterpret masculinity.
As a black, bisexual woman, Banks experiences three intersectional forms of discrimination and abjection—racism, sexism, and heterosexism—and her conscious alternation between the vocal modes of rap and song allows her to resist their terms. She is black, yet she absolves herself of it and turns racial epithets against white men in her music. She is bi, yet she isn’t willing to let her sexuality be driven by the desires of other men. And, although she is a cisgender woman, she resists, perhaps reticently, sexism through her practice of “unladylike” rap. Her raps, in fact, often contain the vast majority of expletives that she uses, layered over cacophonic, abrasive beats to sonically bombard her listeners. In the best example of this, the otherwise euphonic and melodious “Esta Noche,” she serves acerbic flows once a discordant beat hits, rapping, “Here with your man, hand on my hip / a bad bitch do it like this.” Thereafter, her line—“I entice, I supply what your girlfriend can’t provide / that tight-grip twat, I got that slip and slide”—is certainly an instance of self-sexualization, yet the eroticism is lacking in this pornographic rendition of vaginal sex.
Once confronted by any of these three forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, and heterosexism) Azealia Banks is steadfast in her views and does not hesitate to call out sentiments embedded in these systems of hierarchy and privilege. For example, at the very end of her latest “No Problems” video, shot at ULTRA 2013 in Miami, FL, Diplo appears holding Banks around the shoulder. Diplo tells the camera, “I just wanted to say, I’m in the video, she needed me to make it shine a little bit. A big white star…” Smiling, she throws back, “A big white star in my little black girl video, huh,” laughs, and offhandedly remarks, “Fuck you.”
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