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‘I deserve respect’: Azealia Banks on redemption, Republicans – and Kanye

A zealia Banks made a Hanukkah song. It’s called Queen of Sheba, features a klezmer beat, and is, she says, “hot as fuck”. Not that it’ll see the light of day yet. Kanye West (AKA Ye) “fucked it up” by spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories, she says.

We’re speaking in mid-December, ahead of a new single that marks Banks’s return to a major label. By extension, it’s also a return to commentary – an art form the New York City-raised rapper has mastered as much as her diamond-hard and jaw-droppingly dexterous music – if a conflicted one. “I feel like Kanye has made it so garbage to be an entertainer with any opinion,” she says, before teasing her detractors: “If anybody was ever praying for Azealia Banks to finally shut the fuck up, Kanye has provided the platform.”

But over the course of two hours on Zoom this, naturally, turns out to be far from the truth. Banks speaks, with a charming and destabilising mix of irony and earnestness, about everything from her new home in Florida, to her one-time friend and collaborator Ye, to her place in the music industry – and why she has decided to return to a major label after splitting from Universal in 2014 and independently releasing some of her best singles ever.

Those songs – among them 2018’s glamorous self-confidence anthem Anna Wintour, the simmering 2021 Galcher Lustwerk collaboration Fuck Him All Night – supercharged a gen Z-led reappraisal of Banks as an innovator and prophetic commentator who had been unfairly pilloried. They set the stage for comeback single New Bottega, a booming, stylish house track and the launch of Banks’s second round in the spotlight. She’s bullish about its prospects: “I genuinely feel like, 13 years in, New Bottega might be my Hot 100 debut,” she says, sounding sanguine. Then she adds: “Even if that bitch debuts at 99, I’mma be like ‘A-ha-ha-ha-ha, bitch!’”

Azealia Banks in 2011.

In 2012, after the runaway success of her bratty and still-brilliant breakout single, 212, Banks signed to Interscope. After two years of label execs saying that her debut album in-the-making lacked hits, Banks grew “tired of talking to these white guys” and begged them to release her, and her record, from the contract. In 2014, she partnered with the label Prospect Park and released Broke With Expensive Taste to widespread critical acclaim. But the optics of leaving a major as a rising star are less than great; combined with Banks’s propensity for public fights, it seemed as if she was yet another internet success story who had burned through her talent early. Now, Banks is signed to Parlophone, because despite her recent DIY success, a major gets her closer to one specific goal: “I deserve respect,” she says, staring intensely down the camera. When not rinsing her peers or joking about haters, she is steadfast and dead serious.

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Wearing a magenta T-shirt from her skincare company, CheapyXO, and a matching visor, clutching a glass of rosé, Banks explains that her reputation has outpaced her to a degree that has made life difficult. In 2019, she made headlines after being removed from a flight – an incident that Banks and other passengers said was instigated by an attendant asking if she was “going to be trouble”. In 2020, her former manager and Prospect Park head Jeff Kwatinetz sued her for extortion; Banks countersued for breach of contract, fraud and deceit, claiming Kwatinetz groomed her.

She is troubled by the idea that she is an easy target. “Even though I know that the internet is not a real place, there are enough people who take it seriously enough to feel like they can put their hands on me in real life,” she says, wearily. “They feel like they can launch frivolous lawsuits and use this villainous, stupid narrative against me. Even just trying to rent a house and have some peace, you run into these people who are like: ‘Oh, I can throw a rock at her, and if she throws a rock back, I can say look, she’s exactly as you say on the internet.’”

Banks in 2019.

Why Miami? In Florida, people “mind their fuckin’ business”, she says. Banks feels that the media lies about the oft-mocked Republican haven, and says she feels “way safer” there than in Los Angeles, where she feels that she needs a gun. Part of that, she claims, is down to the governor, Ron DeSantis, the Republican primary frontrunner whom she sees as more pragmatic than most political leaders. “He’s focused on the basic shit,” she says. “There are elderly people in our country without walkers, who don’t have the money to get a septic tooth pulled. If we’re talking about divvying up healthcare funds, those situations should take precedence to facial feminisation surgeries and stuff like that. I mean, I get it – but that’s a cosmetic surgery. Like, does your penis work? Can you pee? You’re not as in trouble as the older woman who can’t afford her dialysis. I think DeSantis is practical about a lot of things.”

Banks likes DeSantis for what she sees as some level of common decency, a quality she doesn’t see in a lot of people – least of all Ye, whom she collaborated with in 2012 on a handful of never-released songs. Banks brings him up, describing him as a “grifter”. As we speak, he’s been spouting antisemitic conspiracies and praising Hitler. Her problems with him began in earnest in 2020, when he said at a presidential campaign rally that he and then-wife Kim Kardashian had considered aborting their eldest child. “You’re a fucking idiot for basically sacrificing the mental health of your daughter,” she says.

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Banks’s tone becomes one of disgust. She’s speaking from experience: she has said she comes from an abusive home and is troubled by the potential legacy of Ye’s outbursts on his children. “Just because you can’t get attention from Kim Kardashian, you turn it on your fucking daughter. Kanye, you’re an abusive asshole and you’re a pussy for picking on that little-ass girl. You are the last person we need to hear from about Black fatherhood and the Black family unit.”

Banks says she saw this cruel streak in Ye when she first worked with him, but it hit her differently a decade ago, when she revelled in being his confidante. Back then, she says, “there was a culture in hip-hop that dark-skinned women were ugly,” she says. “To meet him and hear him talk shit about Kim Kardashian” – around the time they started dating – “it gave me a little bit of glee, because you’re young, and you’re dumb, and you don’t get it yet. When you’re getting all this messaging from hip-hop that you are exactly the type of Black woman that it doesn’t want, and then you meet someone that you like, because the music is so good, and he’s like: ‘I hate this white bitch’ – you’re like: ‘Yesss!’” Later she realised how naive she had been. “As time goes on, it’s like: ‘Wait, you hated my Black ass, too! You hate all women!’”

Does she believe there’s a way back for him? “I would hope not – because you have had it very fucked up for a very long time,” she says. “Kanye, did you know that the Bible was the very book used to enslave your dumb ass? Have you ever read the Bible? I’m sure you haven’t. ‘Oh, Hitler was a good guy’ – do you think Hitler liked negroes? It’s way past shock culture and just into stupidity. You deserve to reap what you sow. In the future, when you’re walking down Times Square and you see Kanye West drinking flat Sprite out of a McDonald’s cup out of the garbage can, you can bring it all back to this moment.”

Banks in 2015.

When choosing collaborators now, Banks says it’s about “who’s putting the money on the table first”. She’s realised that “this is the music industry and not the music friends”, and that she doesn’t “have any time to be part of some weak white girl’s PR campaign about how Azealia Banks is a bad person”. She’s seemingly alluding to Grimes – in 2018, she arrived at the home of Elon Musk, then Grimes’s partner, to collaborate with her, only to end up deserted and stuck there, live-blogging as Musk tweeted jokes about Tesla stock while allegedly high on acid. She and Grimes shared screenshots of their hostile DM interactions and both artists were subpoenaed in a lawsuit against Musk. (Banks later apologised for the “seriously unexpected consequences” of her actions.) I ask for clarity but Banks has already moved on: “The girls gotta get to New Bottega levels before they’re getting spoken about by the don diva, by the everlasting diva,” she says of herself, in a hammy drawl.

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Despite being back on a major label, Banks is trying to avoid industry nonsense, “to preserve my own natural ability to create and be inspired by music”, she says. “What is success in music any more? Nobody knows, and for the people who do know, it means scheduling your smiles and crafting some weird character. I think it’s really unfair that people call Azealia Banks a has-been – you are a never-was, and a never-fucking-will-be. You didn’t have the courage to put yourself out there because you were afraid you were going to fail, but I’ve had success. You only have to be right one time to be considered successful, and my batting average is very fucking high.”

At this point, success, for Banks, is about “finding happiness after a long, dramatic childhood … What if I’m writing these songs as a form of redemption? That would blow an audience’s mind – you’re not doing this to entertain me?”

The past few years have been about Banks getting back to what she’s best at: tearing through beats with ferocity, wit and intense skill. She’s coy about future projects (“I’ve learned to be vague, because I’m working on 10m things”), but is excited about her new output. “People gotta catch up to New Bottega,” she says. “They’re gonna be like: ‘Oh shit, this is Azealia Banks? What has she been up to while we’ve been asleep?’” Fans are already familiar with Banks’s “ode to Italian luxury” – because she leaked it last September. It was available for less than a day and still made Pitchfork’s best songs of 2022 – “as it fucking should”, Banks says. “My music is good as shit! If you can’t get off to your own shit, then you probably should not be making music.

“I’ve done this by myself, with knives in my back, rocks thrown at me, kicked off cliffs. And I still keep coming back – you cannot get rid of me,” she says triumphantly. “Y’all have all the help in the world, y’all got writers, y’all got producers, y’all got fucking everybody! And you still sound like shit.”

New Bottega will be released this spring on Parlophone